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.
We’ve been here before over the last half-century – dealing with the same party division – and the party has eventually rallied each time. When the party rallies and gets the vote out nation-wide, it does so around more-conservative as opposed to less-conservative candidates.
But the stakes haven’t been this high for the future of republican government, and the condition of the national union in general, since 1860. There is reason to be concerned that the GOP may not find a way, in the next several years, to rally around a unifying leadership or set of priorities. For too many conservative, limited-government Republicans, it has begun to look like insanity, to keep voting for party-backed GOP candidates and hoping for a different result.
That doesn’t mean anyone is surging to the fore with an identifiable plan for forming another party or establishing unchallenged dominance with a “coup” in the GOP. The GOP itself wasn’t born overnight – and the tugs of inertia, convention, and familiarity are very strong.
But there is an urgency I haven’t seen before to the push among limited-government voters for a correction of our national course. Meanwhile, the knee-jerk antagonism toward those voters from party “moderates” is the most vituperative I have ever seen it.
From multiple perspectives, we are at a hinge-point of history today. To assume away the options that seem unlikely would be to misread conditions and possibilities as profoundly as some of our forebears did in the decades before the two world wars. The world may not be safe anymore for parties of “splittable differences” – four-plus years of Obama have transformed the global political landscape in that regard – and whether they have a plan for doing something about it or not, it’s very possible that poll respondents see that reality more clearly than the average pundit does.
There’s something big going on, something different from anything most of us can remember. People aren’t lined up behind Charles Krauthammer agreeing that Ted Cruz did a stupid thing; a lot of very vocal people think Cruz did a smart thing. A whole lot of people aren’t sure if he did something stupid or smart. But they are sure there’s something big going on.
That certainty will outlast the resolution of the current crisis. The Democrats are, willy-nilly, the party of the last century’s big-government status quo. It’s the future of the GOP that depends on whether it can articulate and channel the voters’ growing anxiety about the “something big” that stalks us – or whether it dismisses the task in favor of splitting differences that hardly seem to matter anymore. If it chooses the latter course, its days as a major party are numbered.