The flaw in zero sum politics

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (Gary Cameron/Reuters

There is a misnomer in politics these days that favorability is a zero sum game: If your opponent is down, then you are up. What we are seeing again and again in polling, however, is that politicians are increasingly seen as one indistinguishable mass, a dislikable one at that. They may have starkly different views, but what they share is unpopularity.

In the latest Fox New poll, for example, President Obama is underwater on overall favorability (45 to 49 percent) and everything from health care (45 to 51 percent)  to Syria (38 to 51 percent). Voters also disapprove of Congress (13 to 81 percent), of the Democratic Party (44 to 49 percent) and the GOP (35 to 59 percent). They don’t approve of the Tea Party (33 to 49 percent) or of Sen. Ted Cruz (22 to 30 percent with 37 percent unaware of who he is). Voters want Obamacare delayed (57 percent), oppose it being defunded (53 percent) and they think the shutdown is bad (67 percent). On the shutdown, voters blame the GOP leadership (25 percent), Cruz and the tea party (17 percent), the president (24 percent) and everyone (20 percent).

So when Democrats say “Americans don’t like the shutdown so they must be against delaying Obamacare” or Republicans say “Americans want Obamacare delayed so the shutdown won’t be unpopular,” they are both wrong.

This suggests three things. First, attacking the other guy is a tactic with diminishing returns. Second, if you aren’t in D.C. and are seeking office (e.g. a mayor, a governor, a former official) by all means disassociate yourself with everyone in D.C. Trashing D.C. is the great unifier. And third, there is a huge opening that neither side is exploiting.

Let me explain the latter. Judging from these poll numbers and other similar polling, the following would be popular: “We’re concerned Obamacare may not work and it is confusing so we’re going to use the next year to work out the kinks before we start fining people for not participating, but we aren’t going to defund it or shut down the government.” Democrats won’t say that because their base will have a meltdown, but in the long run it may actually improve the law and make it more popular. The GOP base doesn’t want any suggestion that Obamacare can be improved or fixed, even substantially, although delay gives them time to demonstrate its unworkability and come up with an alternative.

It’s almost heresy these days to suggest that there are items or compromises that will make both parties popular (e.g. energy development, regulatory relief for small business, immigration reform) because everyone is searching for the wedge issue (how to contrast themselves with the bad, other guys) and because there are enough people in each side’s highly agitated base to demonize it. This is why, for example, there are few politicians who will say “I only want to ban late term abortions.”

That leaves the door open to the political leader who doesn’t fixate on trashing the other side, isn’t part of D.C. and can find the points of agreement while standing up to his base as needed. That person may be very popular and actually accomplish something. We don’t have someone yet, but if Republicans want to dispel their image as negative, angry and divisive  — and win some big elections — it would behoove them to find someone like that.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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Jennifer Rubin | October 4, 2013