In the New York Times, Nicole Hemmer argues that Republicans have been able to succeed politically even as they take one unpopular position after another, thanks to undemocratic features of our political system and to undemocratic policies and attitudes they have added to that system: “Not every policy that parties pursue is popular. But for the modern Republican Party, almost all of its major policies and political strategies have failed to attain popular support.”
This is at best an exaggeration. Hemmer mentions eight policies. Five of them are based on “Republican policy during the Obama administration”: “From debt-ceiling crises to Obamacare repeal to Medicare cuts to government shutdowns to tax cuts for the wealthy, the Republican Party chose the unpopular side of most major policy fights.” Elsewhere she mentions policies on guns, abortion, and the estate tax. On that last issue, she says that a “savvy” choice to use the term “death tax” overcame the unpopularity of the party’s position.
There are polls that back Hemmer on some of this—but also polls that undermine her. Start with Obamacare. The Kaiser Foundation’s surveys generally had more favorable findings on that law than other pollsters. But take a look at the top chart here for the years through the end of 2016 and see if you think it’s Republicans who chose the unpopular side of the fight. (Or ask a politician in either party who was active during those years.) The other major policy initiative of the early Obama years, the stimulus bill, was also unpopular, by the way.
It’s not clear that Republicans are on the unpopular side of abortion, either. On some important questions related to abortion, the public sides with Democrats; on others, with Republicans. (Compare the polls on Roe and abortion bans, on the one hand, to those on third-trimester abortion and public funding on the other.) And while most polling on guns favors the Democrats, there are crucial respects in which it doesn’t. After mass shootings, Republicans have generally taken the line that we should focus on improving school safety and the treatment of severe mental illness rather than changing the gun laws, while Democrats have attacked that position as a distraction from what matters. Gallup found a 56-41 percent split in favor of the former position in 2018.
Tax cuts for the wealthy are indeed unpopular. But that’s a loaded characterization of Republican policies. Favoring lower taxes generally is often a majority position. In April 2015, for example, 51 percent of Americans in a Gallup poll said their taxes were too high. Some polls have also found that the estate tax, even when labeled as such, is unpopular. A 2017 NPR poll found that 65 percent of people want to abolish “the estate tax” while 76 percent want to abolish “the death tax.”
Hemmer’s conclusion depends, I think, on the selection of major issues, the framing of those issues, and the polls used to measure opinion on them. One reason Republicans win a lot of elections is that there is a lot of support around the country for their views.