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Thank heaven for Republicans

Republican leaders in Congress are more unpopular today than they have been at any time in the 15 years Pew has tracked the question. Only 24 percent approve of the job GOP congressional leaders are doing.

While it would be convenient, even comforting, for the GOP to lay its misery at President George W. Bush’s doorstep — and he certainly did significant damage — he does not deserve all the blame. Republican congressional leaders have made things worse, pursuing a strategy that has further diminished their standing with the electorate. Since February, approval of Republican congressional leaders declined an additional 10 points as a result of their decision to “just say no” to everything the president has proposed.

Approval of the frequently maligned Democratic leaders in Congress has also fallen from its high during the post-inaugural glow. Nevertheless, Democratic leaders are still held in significantly higher regard than their GOP counterparts.

Americans are almost twice as likely to be confident that congressional Democrats will make the right decisions for the country’s future as to place such confidence in congressional Republicans. Again, it is not all Bush’s reverse halo — since January, confidence in GOPers has fallen another 10 points on this measure as well.

The misguided approach embraced by congressional Republicans has tarnished their party more broadly. In September, Gallup found the Democratic Party with favorable ratings 11 points higher than Republicans. Indeed, while evaluations of the Democratic Party are net favorable, unfavorable views of the Republicans are 16 points higher than favorable impressions.

Whatever doubts voters may harbor about Democratic solutions, they remain much more inclined to trust us over Republicans to deal with the nation’s troubles. A September ABC/Washington Post poll found Democrats leading Republicans by a 20-point margin as the party better able to cope “with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years.” Just 28 percent trust the GOP to deal with America’s problems, marking a historic low for Republicans. It gets worse, though — never before in the decades this question has been asked have Democrats been worse off than Republicans are today.

Republicans carry at least four burdens. First, while President Bush is not the whole problem, the stench of failure still infuses the GOP. Though voters may not like hearing Democrats blame Bush for the current recession, voters themselves certainly do — 65 percent say the former president bears responsibility for our economic straits, whereas only 27 percent feel the same about President Barack Obama.

Second, in a country consumed with creating jobs and reforming healthcare, voters do not believe Republicans represent their interests — by nearly two to one, Americans say the Democrats are more likely to be concerned “with the needs of people like me.”

Third, Republican leaders are so busy denying Obama bipartisan victories they have neglected to realize they are losing that argument. Sixty percent of respondents told CBS/New York Times pollsters they thought President Obama is trying to work with Republicans, but only half as many believe the GOP is trying to work with Democrats.

Finally, the Republican leadership has revealed to Americans that its obstruction is based on politics, not principle. For example, only 27 percent believe Republicans are opposing healthcare reform because they believe it would be bad for the country. Nearly two-thirds believe politics is the GOP’s fundamental motivation.

Voters rarely say yes to a party that gets caught just saying no — especially when the refusal to join hands for the common good is based on crass political (mis)calculation.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.