Why Republicans badly need a deal on the fiscal cliff

December 18, 2012

Plans are flying back and forth between the White House and House Speaker John Boehner over the best way to avoid hurtling over the fiscal cliff. Smart people on both sides believe a deal is near.

That's a good thing for Republicans. In fact, looking at the numbers in a new Washington Post-ABC poll, it may be an absolutely necessary thing for the GOP.

Consider the following findings:

* Two-thirds of those polled disapprove of how Republican Congressional leaders are handing the fiscal cliff negotiations while just 26 percent approve. That's a stark contrast with President Obama's 47 percent approve/45 percent disapprove rating when it comes to handling the cliff talks. Taking a step back, just 25 percent of people approve of how Congressional Republicans are broadly doing their job; Obama's job approval stands at 54 percent.

* On each of the five issues tested in the poll, Obama has leads ranging from four to 26 points over Congressional Republicans on which side people trust more to do a better job.  That includes an 18-point Obama lead on handling the economy and a 26-point Obama lead on protecting the middle class. Obama's smallest edge over Republicans in Congress is on handling the budget deficit, where he has just a four-point margin.

* A plurality (47 percent) said that Congressional Republicans would be more to blame if the country went over the fiscal cliff while 31 percent said they would blame President Obama more. Those numbers are generally consistent with data from a Post survey conducted earlier this month that showed 53 percent would blame Republicans more and 27 percent would blame Obama.

What all of these numbers make clear is that Republicans are terribly positioned in a public relations battle with the President over the fiscal cliff (or anything else) any time soon. As we noted last week, Republicans have a major brand problem that drastically limits their ability to convince the American public of the rightness of their ideas.

The general perception of the GOP is disastrously bad and it seems highly unlikely that hurtling off the fiscal cliff would do anything to improve it.  (Three quarters of respondents in the Post-ABC poll said that Congressional Republicans have not been willing enough to seek compromise with President Obama on the details of a budget deal.)

Smart Republican strategists -- and we would include House Speaker John Boehner in that group -- understand this reality.  And that's why the prevailing conventional wisdom in GOP strategy circles on the cliff talks is that the party has to find a way to fight another day on better political ground.

That doesn't mean total capitulation to what President Obama wants but it does mean finding a way to "yes" so that the party can begin to regroup heading into the next Congress and the midterm election of 2014.  Anything short of that could drive the party's brand further into the ground and make any sort of political comeback that much more difficult.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · December 18, 2012