As the Shutdown Continues, the GOP Bleeds Support

Byron York reports that House Republicans are coalescing around the idea of a short-term (six-week) debt limit increase to create breathing room as the shutdown continues. My sense is that the reason for a short-term increase as opposed to a long-term increase is that while a short-term increase has at least some potential of garnering enough Republican votes to pass, a long-term increase does not. And one has to wonder why this is the case. Assume that we pass a short-term debt limit increase yet that the Obama administration and Senate Democrats refuse to offer Obamacare concessions to reopen the government. Do we have any reason to believe that the president and his allies will bear the brunt of the blame? If House Republicans remain united in resisting a clean CR for six weeks, will they be in a more favorable position the next time the federal government approaches the debt limit?

A new Gallup survey has been making the rounds:

With the Republican-controlled House of Representatives engaged in a tense, government-shuttering budgetary standoff against a Democratic president and Senate, the Republican Party is now viewed favorably by 28% of Americans, down from 38% in September. This is the lowest favorable rating measured for either party since Gallup began asking this question in 1992.

The Democratic Party also has a public image problem — although not on the same elephantine scale as that of the Republican Party — with 43% viewing the Democratic Party favorably, down four percentage points from last month.

These findings come from a Gallup poll conducted Oct. 3-6 that followed the Oct. 1 partial government shutdown after lawmakers in Washington were unable to pass a spending plan for the federal government.

More than six in 10 Americans (62%) now view the GOP unfavorably, a record high. By comparison, nearly half of Americans (49%) view the Democratic Party unfavorably. Roughly one in four Americans see both parties unfavorably.

Notably, only 13 percent of self-identified Democrats view their own party unfavorably while 27 percent of Republicans view their own party unfavorably. Does this reflect the fact that a growing number of Republicans are convinced that the congressional GOP is going to surrender on Obamacare? It doesn’t look like it:

The GOP’s unfavorable rating among Republicans is up eight points from September, compared with a one-point rise in Democratic Party unfavorables among Democrats. These findings may be consistent with the widely circulated narrative that the Republican Party is internally splintered on how best to handle the budgetary negotiations.

Granted, the GOP’s unfavorable rating among Republicans was already a high 19 percent before the current budget confrontation commenced, and at least some Republicans were disgruntled because they felt the party wasn’t sufficiently conservative. But the Republican willingness to embrace confrontation doesn’t seem to have yielded any net gains in support among Republican voters. One can imagine a scenario in which the composition of GOP voters with an unfavorable view of the party has changed. That is, the number of Tea Party Republicans disappointed in the GOP might be shrinking as the number of somewhat conservative and moderate Republicans disappointed in the GOP might be growing. Yet any gains from the former have been more than outweighed by losses from the latter. Another possibility is that Tea Party Republicans are no less disappointed in the GOP, and the chaotic nature of the confrontation might actually be alienating these voters just as much as it is alienating somewhat conservative and moderate Republicans. I honestly have no idea.

Many conservatives believe that if congressional Republicans demonstrate backbone, they can achieve major policy victories, and that the willingness to risk rising unpopularity is a good thing, as it demonstrates courage and integrity that voters will eventually reward. It strikes me as unlikely that voters will eventually decide that the shutdown and the debt limit fight were actually a really good thing, and that Republicans in swing districts should be rewarded for going along with both. Perhaps the backbone theory is more that, as Jim DeMint famously argued, it is better to have a small minority of conservative stalwarts than a large majority of compromisers. This is an interesting thesis. The problem is that if Democrats win large majorities, they can presumably pass legislation like Obamacare, only more expansive and ambitious. The rump Republicans can fight these efforts, but as Democrats portray them as irresponsible, etc., their numbers will continue to shrink. 

We’re in this situation in which no matter how unpopular Republicans get, some conservatives will claim that the reason Republicans are unpopular is that they haven’t been sufficiently audacious in making demands. We’re dealing with something akin to a death spiral. Recall that while GOP unfavorables are rising among self-identified Republicans, some number of Republicans will eventually become ex-Republicans — there is some point at which a threshold is crossed. So the 27 percent of Republicans who view their own party unfavorably don’t represent 27 percent of the larger universe of center-right voters. Rather, they represent 27 percent of the residual Republicans left after earlier moments during which other Republicans defected from the party.

I think that Republicans can find a way out of this dilemma, e.g., nominating a presidential candidate who connects with voters outside of the GOP base. Or Republicans who recognize that a strategy of confrontation is proving costly and ineffective might finally assert themselves. But congressional Republicans keep rescuing Democrats from their own failures by pursuing unattainable, and in some cases incoherent, goals. While Republicans are growing less popular, the political entrepreneurs who’ve devised the strategy of confrontation are by and large profiting from having done so. 

Dan Liljenquist, a former Utah state legislator who ran against Sen. Orrin Hatch for the Republican nomination last year, has an op-ed sharply criticizing Utah Sen. Mike Lee:

I am deeply concerned that, by relentlessly pursuing an all-or-nothing strategy over the objections of most of his Senate Republican colleagues, which resulted in this government shutdown, Sen. Mike Lee, while sincere in his efforts to stop Obamacare, has committed an act of self-immolation that will cripple his influence in the United States Senate. Unfortunately for the State of Utah, the damage may be permanent.

Liljenquist then reflects on his tenure in the Utah Senate, and the lessons he learned from it — how the best leaders in the legislature were those that “afforded the greatest respect, in both public and private, for their colleagues”:

I also witnessed the other side – how certain legislators, perhaps caught up in the intoxication of elected office, perhaps mistaking attention for influence, perhaps focused on developing their own celebrity with a view to higher office, would take every opportunity to lecture rather than listen, to posture rather than persuade, to criticize rather than communicate. These were the legislators who routinely, if not gleefully, poked their own colleagues in the eye at every opportunity, often in front of television cameras. These were the legislators who eventually lost their ability to influence their colleagues and pass legislation.

I’m an admirer of Sen. Lee, and Liljenquist’s objections might more appropriately be applied to some of Sen. Lee’s colleagues. But his basic point is sound. And I’d go further. Somehow the Republicans profiting from undermining their colleagues need to pay a price for having done so. 


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

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