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Surveying the GOP wreckage

Greg Nash

While there were no winners in the government shutdown, the Republican Party was clearly a big loser.

No one can say with certainty how long the damage will last or what its precise electoral impact will be, but the damage to the brand is unique in modern history.

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Strangely, the Republican wreckage was entirely predictable and predicted by many.

Democrats like me argued before the fact that the GOP would be hurt. In fairness, though, most — though not all — of my GOP colleagues also anticipated the damage.

Republicans who persisted with the shutdown strategy despite the clear warnings either wrongly thought they knew better or simply didn’t care about their party.

A survey of the wreckage reveals a GOP blamed for the dysfunction, seen as both uncompromising and unprincipled and having earned the title of “most unpopular major political party in the history of U.S. polling.”

Public distaste for congressional Republicans is palpable.

Start with the Fox News poll last week that found 75 percent disapproving of the job Republicans in Congress are doing and just 20 percent approving. Fox has been asking the question since 2005, and disapproval never exceeded 60 percent until late 2011. Now standing at a record 75 percent, it is 9 points higher than it was just two months ago.

Lest you assume it’s simply a plague on everyone’s house, disapproval of Republicans in Congress is 12 points higher than that for their Democratic colleagues, while approval is 13 points lower.

Other polls are in the same record neighborhood.

In a recent CBS poll, 78 percent disapproved of the way congressional Republicans are handling their job. Quinnipiac pegged the number at 74 percent, matching a record high for the poll.

Pew, looking at attitudes toward Republican leaders in Congress, found 72 percent disapproving. From 1997, when Pew first asked the question, until 2011, disapproval never exceeded 60 percent.

None of these polls suggest deep affection for congressional Democrats, but in every case they are much more highly regarded than their GOP counterparts.

The Republican Party itself has also achieved record heights of unpopularity.

In the Fox News poll, 63 percent harbored unfavorable views, with just 30 percent reacting favorably. Unfavorables for the GOP are the highest ever recorded and 16 points higher than the average over the Fox poll’s lifetime. And while voters are now unfavorable rather than favorable to Republicans by a 33-point margin, for Democrats that margin is just 9 points.

I could go on citing the record level of unfavorables for the GOP — 64 percent in a CNN poll, 63 percent in an ABC/Washington Post poll and 62 percent for Gallup — but, suffice to say, never in the history of polling has either party been seen unfavorably by as many voters as the Republicans are today.

The reasons are obvious, but it’s worth unpacking them a bit.

Republicans are seen as responsible for an unpopular shutdown. In polls taken since it ended, the GOP is blamed more than Democrats by an 18-point margin.

Republicans are also seen as both uncompromising and unprincipled.

Only 24 percent thought the GOP was interested in doing what was best for the country, while 71 percent said they were “mostly concerned about gaining political advantage.”

An NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll found just 27 percent believing Republicans were standing up for what they believe in. Seventy percent said they were putting their political agenda ahead of what is good for the country.

In the course of this debacle, Republicans also lost their modest advantage as the party of responsible spending — going from a 1-point edge to 9-point deficit.

In surveying the wreckage, honest Republicans will find it difficult to see a silver lining. They can only hope that, with time, Americans will forget what their party wrought.

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