The Budget Battle is Dividing GOP Voters

Scott Clement and Peyton M. Craighill of the Washington Post report that while the share of U.S. voters backing the president’s handling of budget negotiations has increased slightly, the share backing congressional Democrats and Republicans has declined:

Some 45 percent approve of Obama’s handling of budget negotiations, up slightly from 41 percent last week. A still larger 51 percent disapproves of Obama, with 39 percent of the public disapproving strongly. Obama’s fellow Democrats have not been as resilient. Fully 61 percent of Americans now disapprove of congressional Democrats (up from 56 percent last week), with strong disapproval rising nine points (to 45 percent).

Republicans in Congress are worse off still. A Post-ABC poll last week found 63 percent disapproving of Republicans, a number that has grown to 70 percent in the past week. Strong disapproval has grown from 42 to 51 percent over the same period.

What is most striking about the new poll is that Republican voters are divided:

By 59 to 39 percent, conservative Republicans approve of the way their party’s members of congress have handled budget negotiations in combined interviews over two weeks. But Republicans who identify as moderate or liberal split narrowly: 44 percent approval to 49 percent disapproval.

This ideological split within the Republican party comes into sharper focus when looking at the most conservative party members. Republicans who describe themselves as “very conservative” approve of Republicans in Congress by 68 to 32 percent. Those who are just “somewhat conservative” split 51 to 45 percent in two weeks of combined poll results.

It is often noted that America’s two major political parties have grown more ideologically coherent, with liberals largely identifying as Democrats and conservatives largely identifying as Republicans. Yet the Democratic party has been, in recent years, a coalition between moderates and liberals, as liberals represent a smaller share of the electorate than conservatives (23 percent vs. 39 percent, with 37 percent identifying as moderates). But there seems to be a convergence between moderate Republicans and “somewhat conservative” Republicans as a gap opens up between “somewhat conservative” Republicans and “very conservative” Republicans. The House Republican conference is perhaps best understood as a coalition between the Somewhats and the Verys, and the Verys are damaging the political prospects of the Somewhats. The Somewhats have it in their power to end the crisis, yet they remain reluctant to assert themselves, presumably because they fear the consequences of undermining party unity. At some point, the dam is going to break, particularly if congressional Republicans continue to lose popularity at a faster rate than congressional Democrats. Keep in mind that the rise in GOP disapproval is not even across electoral constituencies — it is far more threatening to moderates and Somewhats than to Verys.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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