What does it mean that recent polls show 7 in 10 respondents think Republicans are putting their agenda ahead of what’s good for the country, as opposed to the 5 in 10 respondents who think President Obama is doing the same?
The answer probably lies in an analysis of the ancillary question posed in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll: do respondents agree or not with the statement that the GOP or the president is “demonstrating strong leadership and standing up for what they [he] believe[s] in”?
For Republicans, only 27% of respondents agreed with that statement. For Obama, 46% of them agreed.
On the face of it, that’s actually a contradictory assessment about the Republicans. Only 27% of respondents think Republicans are standing up for what they believe in – and yet more than 70% of respondents (the actual figure was 74%) think Republicans are putting their agenda ahead of what’s good for the country? How can that be?
Here’s how: a meaningful number of the respondents are conservative Republicans (call them the “Tea Party,” for short) who are disappointed with GOP leaders, because the conservative respondents don’t think GOP leaders are standing up for Republican beliefs. Those respondents add to the number who are predisposed to blame or dislike Republicans for other reasons. But the “Tea Party” demographic despises GOP leadership because it thinks the party is doing too little to combat current trends in government, rather than too much.
I don’t think it can be disputed that the opinion-poll numbers are bad for Republicans. But I do think the narrative that reflexively calls this a linear reaction to The Stupidity of Cruz is all wet. For one thing, that narrative itself falls apart on examination. The specialized thought process and the poll-respondent demographic just don’t exist to make it descriptive.
Equally important, however, is the key difference between Democrats and Republicans in October 2013, which is that Republicans are profoundly divided.
As long as the Democrats keep their communications reasonably disciplined, they can be sure of getting a unified set of characterizations across to the public without interference. But the Republicans, who already find every talking point distorted by the media, have the added burden of genuine disagreement among themselves. There’s no question that Republicans look, at this juncture, like we can’t get our act together. This is because we can’t get our act together. We don’t agree on what it should be.
Poll respondents are quite reasonable in recognizing that there would be no government shutdown if everyone in the GOP agreed with the Democrats on what should be done. That’s really kind of a forehead-slapping “duh!” revelation, and I suspect it’s what the poll numbers are telling us. Of course it’s the GOP’s fault that there has been a shutdown. Of course the shutdown has been forced by political differences.
Does it follow that 74% of poll respondents – or of Americans in general, who may or may not be well represented in this poll – think “the” problem is the Tea Party, and that the way to resolve it is for the GOP to crush the “Tea Party wing” and get on with the business of agreeing with the Democrats?
No, it doesn’t – any more than it follows that the GOP should do the converse: rout the GOP “moderates” in a turkey-shoot from the right. There is no such quantity out there as a 74% majority making it clear that Republican blame for the shutdown should translate into gigging Ted Cruz like a swamp-bottom frog, or into running John McCain out of town on a rail.
What there is instead is a profound dispute within the GOP about who we are and what our way forward is.
There may no longer be a unifying “center” to hold the GOP together. If the GOP doesn’t encompass the limited-government views of the Tea Party, there is an essential sense in which the party no longer represents an alternative to the Democratic Party.
But there is still a sizable number of Republicans who see a viable future for a Republican Party that makes its name on what George Will has been calling “splittable differences” with the Democrats in Congress. I admire Will’s broadly positive and genial take on the current impasse between the parties, and between the factions in the GOP. But ultimately, I’m not convinced that being the party of “splittable differences” would be a big motivator or vote-getter for Republicans.