A new poll by the Pew Research Center suggests that the Republican rank and file have begun to grasp that their party is in serious trouble. Fully 67% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters agree that the GOP “needs to address major problems” in the party; 59% agree that the GOP “needs to reconsider some positions.” A separate poll last week (released by Democrats James Carville and Stanley Greenberg) found Democrats to be, on average, 8% more satisfied with their own party than Republicans are with theirs.
This desire for renewal is bubbling up at a time when Republican leaders are behaving like extremists—for instance, by voting 39 times in the Republican-controlled House to repeal Obamacare. (A 40th vote may occur later this week.) If the first step toward rehabilitation is recognizing that you have a problem, then the GOP rank and file seem to be doing exactly that.
What’s surprising is how these Republicans and Republican-leaners propose fixing the problem. A 54% majority think the party should move “in a more conservative direction,” as against 40% who favor moving “in a more moderate direction” and 5% who are either satisfied with the current direction or don’t have an opinion.
Only 27% think Republicans in Congress haven’t compromised enough with Democrats: 67% are either fine with the GOP’s obstructionism in Congress or desire more of it. Indeed, this last category represents a narrow plurality (35%).
Democrats, the Pew Center points out, follow a similar, though slightly less pronounced pattern. Only 32% of Democrats and Democrat-leaners think their party hasn’t compromised enough with the Republicans, while 64% are either fine with Democrats’ willingness to compromise or desire less of it.
An excessively fair-minded dolt might conclude that both parties are equally obstreperous. But to do so would ignore dramatically different underlying realities. Congressional Republicans compromise almost never for fear of being tagged pro-government patsies. Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, compromise all the time, because that’s the only way to get anything done.
That’s the nice explanation. A less-nice explanation is that Democrats are congenitally wimpy. Evidence for the latter proposition is that even while most Republicans want their party to become more conservative, a comparable majority of Democrats (54%) wants the party to become more moderate, an activity Democrats have beavered away at since about 1975. Combine the two findings and you will understand why the political spectrum has, during the past generation, moved steadily rightward.
On three out of five issues that the Pew poll asks about—immigration, abortion, and gun policy–a plurality of Republicans and Republican leaners think their party’s stance is “about right,” with a smaller number saying it is “not conservative enough” and an even smaller number saying it’s “too conservative.” So why does the GOP rank and file say it wants more conservative policies and less compromise? The mystery deepens when you look at a fourth issue, gay marriage. More Republicans think their party’s stance is “too conservative” (31%) than think it’s “not conservative enough” (27%). Those who say the party’s stance on gay marriage is “about right” (33%) only slightly outnumber those who think it’s too conservative (again, 31%). On this issue, at least, Republicans are close to favoring a leftward shift.
So what accounts for the GOP voter’s expressed desire to move right and shun cooperation with Democrats? Probably the fifth issue that Pew asks about, government spending. This is the only issue where a plurality (46%) says the party is “not conservative enough.” It’s also the issue where the percentage that thinks the party is “too conservative” is smallest (10%).
It would be interesting to know how much the Republicans and Republican leaners who participated in Pew’s poll equate government spending with the deficit. The issue of government size is often conflated with government solvency, but they aren’t the same. Government spending can be reduced only through program cuts, whereas the deficit can be reduced either through program cuts or through tax increases.
In the past, Republican voters (as distinct from Republican politicians) have been surprisingly amenable to raising taxes in order to reduce the deficit. For example, in August 2011 a CBS/New York Times poll found that a 52% majority of Republicans would favor raising taxes on incomes above $250,000 to lower the deficit. That was the policy favored at the time by President Obama (though I presume the CBS/New York Times pollsters never shared that information with respondents for fear of inciting more partisan responses).
Unfortunately, this Republican majority that favored higher taxes on the affluent was unable to sell the idea to its 2012 candidate, Mitt Romney, or to its leaders in Congress. As a result, in December 2012 Obama had to raise his tax-increase threshold from $250,000 to an absurdly high $450,000, an alteration that lost somewhere between $100 billion and $200 billion in deficit savings.
A Republican party that wishes to be more conservative is not likely to increase its base, but that isn’t a GOP priority right now. The Pew poll suggests the GOP remains largely in the grip of the Tea Party. Tea Party members and sympathizers represent only 37% of all Republicans, but they represent 49% of the primary electorate—i.e., about half.
Tea Party Republicans tend to be older than other Republicans—67% of them are over 50, as against 52% of non-Tea Party Republicans. They are also more affluent. Indeed, the anti-government Tea Party is in large part the ironic product of the unprecedented leisure time that the New Deal and Great Society afforded elderly people through Social Security and Medicare. These government subsidies freed a lot of them to lobby vigorously against government subsidies for anyone or anything else.
That is, of course, a poor strategy for enticing others to join the party, and indeed the Carville-Greenberg poll demonstrates that the GOP is doing an especially bad job of attracting young people. Republicans can claim about one third of all people who reached adulthood during the last half of the twentieth century. But among those who reached adulthood during the present century, it’s a very different story: the so-called Millennials have about twice as many Democrats and Independents (40 and 39%, respectively) as Republicans (21%).
The GOP wants to renew itself. But to do so, it will need a better plan than simply drifting further rightward at the prodding of its oldest and crankiest cohort.