By Mark Mellman - 02/24/09 05:52 PM EST
Republicans high-fiving each other in the wake of their united opposition to the stimulus revealed a party so detached from reality it is unaware of the utter failure of its strategy.
Startling as it may be, the GOP has fallen even further behind the Democrats since its fall drubbing.
Going into last year’s election season, voters trusted our party more than Republicans to deal with the nation’s key problems by a hefty 21-point margin, which helped generate huge Democratic gains. Today, the gap in favor of Democrats has increased to 26 points, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll.
The approval gap between Democrats and Republicans in Congress has never been greater. Today, approval of Democrats in Congress is 12-14 points higher than that of congressional Republicans. Going into the last election, a slightly lesser 10-point margin resulted in a rout.
The AP poll shows congressional Democrats with a 16-point lead over their Republican colleagues on dealing with the economy specifically. Looked at differently, voters disapprove of the way congressional Republicans are handling economic issues by a damning 26 points.
President Obama’s approval advantage over the GOP is even more pronounced, ranging from 26 to 35 points in the recent wave of polls.
Perhaps some Republicans still harbor the illusion that their too-clever-by-half attempt to hoist the president by his own bipartisan petard paid off. This gambit, too, failed. Fox found 66 percent believing the president reached out to Republicans in a sincere effort to be bipartisan, but only half as many were willing to give that accolade to the Republicans — a clear sign that voters believe the GOP has crossed the line from loyal opponents to hack politicians.
Republicans are no doubt harkening back to 1994 as their model, aiming to be as destructive as possible, confident voters will blame Democrats as the party in charge on Election Day. Newt Gingrich’s logic was that bringing down Congress would serve Republican interests because there were more D’s than R’s.
The analogy is fundamentally flawed, however. First, unlike in 1994, today Congress in general, and congressional Democrats in particular, are held in increasing esteem. While Congress is hardly a beloved institution, as it has focused on the economy and achieved success, its approval ratings have jumped 10-19 points depending on the poll you choose. Ratings for Democratic leaders in Congress displayed similarly dramatic improvement.
More important from a strategic point of view is the essential difference in context. In 1994, Democrats were hurting badly, but despite Newt Gingrich’s radical fulminations, congressional Republicans were largely a cipher, invisible to the public. No one had heard of either Gingrich or the Contract with America and even fewer knew what the GOP would do once it was in control. So Democrats were running against themselves at a time when we were suffering from public disdain.
Today, Republicans are well understood and widely reviled. Disapproval of Republicans in Congress today is within the margin of error of what it was for Democrats in 1994, while Democrats today occupy a much stronger position than did Republicans back then.
The GOP has adopted a clear strategy — obstruct where possible and hope for the worst; hope for failure; hope Democrats are undone by recession. We have the first read on that strategy, and it is an unequivocal failure. Republicans who want to hold their seats would do well to rethink their approach before the negative images become even more deeply etched in voters’ consciousness.
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.