Leaders Try to Find a Way Out
The American public is starting to weigh in on the government shutdown and the debt ceiling debate, and it’s not a pretty picture for the Republican Party. The latest public opinion polls show that Republicans are getting hammered over the shutdown and fears that the U.S. could default unless the borrowing limit is raised.
The latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that 53 percent of those surveyed blamed the Republicans for the shutdown, while 31 percent blamed President Barack Obama. Only 24 percent now have a positive view of the Republican Party, while the Democratic Party gets an approval rating of 39 percent. Republicans got their lowest marks ever in the Journal-NBC poll, which has been tracking how the public views the two main political parties since 1989.
There were similar findings in the latest Gallup poll. Only 28 percent in that survey now view the Republican Party in a positive light, down from 38 percent in September. In both recent polls, President Obama’s approval ratings are inching up a bit. But to be fair, the public seems pretty down on all the key players in Washington right now and wants to see some sort of compromise to end the political crisis. Nearly 80 percent in the Journal-NBC poll said the country was currently on the wrong track, the highest reading on that question since the U.S. was in the midst of the 2008 recession.
A Growing Republican Divide
There’s no question that the shutdown and debt limit debate are being pushed most aggressively by the Tea Party faction in Congress, especially that group of 40 to 60 Republicans in the House of Representatives chomping at the bit for a confrontation with President Obama and his Democratic allies. Remember, though, that this group initially wanted to make a stand over the issue of either defunding or delaying the president’s signature health care reform law, which even Mr. Obama now refers to as ‘Obamacare’.
In recent days Republican congressional leaders have gradually shifted the emphasis away from battling Obamacare and now prefer to focus on cutting spending and lowering the budget deficit. This is a setback for the defund Obamacare faction within the Republican Party, led by folks like Texas Senator Ted Cruz. They had hoped a government shutdown would rally public support around the country to do away with the health care law and would make them heroes in the ranks of the Tea Party movement. This is especially important to figures like Cruz who seems intent on seeking the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
But the shutdown and flirting with disaster over the debt ceiling have sparked a backlash against the Tea Party supporters from more moderate, mainstream elements in the Republican Party. Business groups have long been key financial backers of Republicans in Congress and they are watching with alarm as the Republican brand takes a beating in public opinion polls. Some mainstream Republicans are so upset they are now seeking to challenge those incumbents who rely on Tea Party support, and they are actively encouraging business groups to fund these challengers.
Despite these concerns, the Tea Party remains the main catalyst within the Republican Party. What has made the group of Tea Party House Republicans so potent in recent months is that well-financed conservative organizations like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks are willing to actively back Tea Party challengers in safe Republican congressional districts where an incumbent member only has to fear a challenger from his or her right. For Republicans there is nothing more fearful today than the prospect of facing a far-right primary challenger with Tea Party grassroots support backed by money from groups eager to target incumbents they deem to be too moderate.
Is This the New Normal?
It’s clear that Washington and the rest of the country are getting impatient with both the government shutdown and the never-ending partisan battles over the budget. The world is also taking more notice, wondering if the political dysfunction has become so crippling that it threatens to undermine the U.S. as a driving economic force and model for other countries.
But we’re likely to see more of these battles as the second Obama term progresses, not fewer. Republicans have been reluctant to let go of the shutdown because they believe it’s the best leverage they have to force the president and Democrats to the bargaining table and talk about bigger issues like government spending and debt. They want to claim some sort of victory for their Tea Party supporters back home just in time for next year’s midterm congressional elections.
Democratic political strategist Stan Greenberg had what I thought was a great take on what is driving conservative and Tea Party supporters within the Republican Party. Greenberg’s recent survey found a deep sense of frustration among grass roots activists within the Republican Party that it was not doing enough to stop what they regard as President Obama’s “socialist agenda.” Greenberg says the sense he came away with from these conservative focus groups was that these voters believe the president has already won and passed his agenda. He says these voters don’t have a problem with gridlock and side with Republicans in trying to do anything they can in Washington to block his agenda.
This group of hardcore conservatives likely cares little about the national polls that show most people blaming Republicans for the government shutdown. After all, one of the rallying cries of the Tea Party movement when it sprouted up in 2009 was ‘no more compromise’, part of a pledge to end business as usual in Washington. So this group is not going to go away anytime soon. The question is, given the beating the party is taking in the polls, how will mainstream, establishment Republicans respond to these aggressive tactics both in the short term and in upcoming elections in 2014 and 2016.