An important takeaway from the recent budgetary battles is that the principal reason for the Republican party’s low approval rating is its mediocre support among its own membership. A Fox News poll taken shortly after the government shutdown had begun showed very consistent numbers for what Democrats think of their own party (a net approval rating of + 75 points — with 86 percent approving and 11 percent disapproving), what they think of Republicans (minus 75 points — 10 to 85 percent), and what Republicans think of Democrats (minus 73 points — 11 to 84 percent). The clear outlier was what Republicans think of their own party, as they gave it a net approval rating of only + 46 points (71 to 25 percent).
This is surely not a problem that is going to be solved by having Republicans become more accommodationist on Obamacare, as the mainstream press would very much like. And it’s certainly not a problem that’s going to be solved by having Republicans jettison the Tea Party, as David Frum would like. One marvels at how quickly establishment Republicans forget that the tea-party-fueled, anti-Obamacare election of 2010 resulted in the biggest GOP gains in the House since before World War II, along with wins in the Senate by tea-party-backed candidates like Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, Pat Toomey, and Rand Paul. This amnesia is especially remarkable given that, just two years later, an establishment Republican presidential candidate — who thought “Obamacare was very attractive” — lost by 126 electoral votes to a vulnerable incumbent.
In this light, the way forward for the Republican party is not to listen to the liberal media or to Frum, or to look to nominate more Mitt Romneys or John McCains. Rather, the way forward for the GOP is to combine tea-party principles with greater prudence and pragmatism. There was a moment in the budget battles when House Republicans were remarkably united around a sensible and moderate-sounding proposal: fund the government, delay Obamacare’s unprecedented individual mandate for a year, and nix the illegal Obamacare congressional carve-out. Congressional Republicans, however, failed to stay on message and convey this position to the American people, and they abandoned it altogether after just a few days. But if the GOP will coalesce around similarly unifying proposals going forward, and will make the effort to sell them to the American people, it will be the Democrats whose stock will quickly fall.
As for avoiding yet another Republican presidential candidate who doesn’t adequately represent the views of the party faithful, the GOP would be wise to embrace much-needed presidential-selection reforms that would empower rank-and-file Republican voters. Such reforms would go a long way toward alleviating the problem captured in Fox’s polling.
— Jeffrey H. Anderson is executive director of the newly formed 2017 Project, which is working to advance a conservative reform agenda.