COMMENTARY | Today, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that Republicans are losing the public opinion polls on the fiscal cliff. More Americans find Republicans to blame for the mess, according to the Washington Post.
In the cited survey, 53 percent of respondents blamed Republicans for the impasse, while only 27 percent found Democrats responsible. Another 12 percent believed both sides were to blame. Independents were more likely to back Democrats on the fiscal cliff talks.
We can find many examples of Republicans taking it on the chin in these debates. Here are three examples:
Exhibit A: 1947. This isn’t the first time either. History teaches us about the 1948 election between President Harry S. Truman and the “Do nothing” Republican Congress he ran against. Truman not only beat the Republican nominee Tom Dewey, but simultaneously fended off challenges from Dixiecrats (under Strom Thurmond) and the Progressive Party under Henry Wallace.
Exhibit B: 1995. Then there’s the 1995 government shutdown, which made a winner out of Bill Clinton and a loser out of Newt Gingrich and his Congressional allies, ensuring Clinton’s successful re-election bid. Half of Americans backed Clinton in the debate, while only 22 percent approved of Gingrich’s handling of the stalled budget.
Exhibit C: 2011. Last year, tea party congressional representatives went toe-to-toe with President Barack Obama in the debt ceiling negotiations, and came out second best. Obama’s presidential approval ratings rebounded, while the tea party Republicans never seemed to recover. Their standard-bearer Michele Bachmann foundered badly in the primaries, and few others stepped into the void, giving Mitt Romney the GOP nomination and Obama a successful re-election bid.
Why is this? Aren’t Republicans always running on the position of fiscal responsibility, labeling their opponents as tax-and-spend liberals? How could they go 0-4 with the public on these budgetary confrontations?
Here are three reasons explaining why Republicans keep getting the blame.
Reason 1: It’s in the Job Description. There’s a recurring feature in each of these debates. We have a Republican Congress and a Democratic President. A close reading of the job description in the Constitution shows that it is the legislative branch which initiates the fiscal legislation. Yet each time, Republicans have sought to force the president to show his hand first, without developing a plan with specifics, which is how the system is supposed to work.
Reason 2: State of Nature vs. Social Contract. A former student of mine provided a link to the humor magazine “Cracked,” which talked about how the movies frequently fall into the tropes of State of Nature vs. Social Contract. While Ayn Rand libertarians see a world without government as a free market paradise free from conflict, most liberals (on economic issues) and conservatives (on security issues) aren’t so sure. Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” makes more sense to them. It resembles a “Stand Your Ground” free-for-all.
Before the 1995 standoff, Gingrich gave an interview where he said the Republicans would shut down the government if their demands weren’t met, and then seemed surprised when he was blamed for it. Blaming Clinton for the shutdown because of the seat he got on Air Force One in the back didn’t help. Democratic presidents get points with the public for trying to avert a shutdown. Rather than follow the Grover Norquist method of making government small enough to strangle in a bathtub, Republicans should focus on plans designed to make government more efficient, instead of nonexistent, if they want to win such debates.
Reason 3: A House Divided. GOP Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and conservatives are bashing House Speaker John Boehner, who is retaliating by booting several tea party representatives from the budget committee. Democrats, meanwhile, appear more unified in these debates, then and now. If the Hatfields and McCoys have a property dispute, and the Hatfields show up at court shooting at each other, while the McCoys are in lockstep with each other, whose claim are you likely to believe?
Of course it isn’t fair that Republicans keep getting the blame during these fiscal crises. But by demanding the president take action, calling for an eliminated government instead of an efficient one, and fighting each other, the GOP will keep losing these public opinion battles.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.