A year ago, after their big victory in the midterm elections, Republicans were full of confidence and anticipation. As Americans look toward next November, the question that many will be asking is: Are the Republicans really ready to lead? In three political arenas — Congress, the states and the presidential campaign trail — Republicans have left a checkered record in the past year.
For Republicans, the coming presidential election should be presented as mostly a referendum on the record and performance of President Obama. If it is, the president will be genuinely vulnerable, given the weak economy. Instead, Republicans have wound up making their party the focus of the campaign, to their detriment.
Last week, the president scored the cleanest victory of the year in the fight to extend the payroll tax break, capping a three-month standoff with congressional Republicans over economic issues. The political debacle that played out in Congress before Christmas is the clearest evidence of a party still divided between tea party insurgents and the governing class.
Republican leaders have yet to demonstrate that they know how to resolve the tension between running a campaign to shrink the government and then getting broad public support to put their policies in place. House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) has struggled all year to reconcile the rambunctious freshman class to the realities of governing, particularly with such a partisan divide. Which is why the standoff over a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut ended up as such an embarrassment for the GOP.
Republicans are in worse shape today than they were last December. One year into Republican rule in the House, the GOP has the lowest-ever approval ratings for its congressional performance. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that just 20 percent of Americans approved of the job congressional Republicans have done this year, down 14 points since the spring, when the party was just taking hold in the House.
Congressional Democrats, too, are at low ebb, at 27 percent. But Obama’s overall approval ratings have perked up in the past month. He is not as ranked as high as most other recent presidents heading into a reelection year, but he is better off today than he was at the end of the summer. Congressional Republicans can take much of the credit for that.
Republican governors have more successes to show than their congressional colleagues. Their ranks include some of the party’s brightest stars, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the most visible. Thanks to big Republican majorities in their legislatures, many of the governors have been able to show what conservative governance would look like.
They sought to balance budgets without raising taxes and have confronted the issue of public employee compensation while Washington avoided seriously tackling entitlement reform. But those actions have also garnered low approval ratings for many of the new governors elected in the big sweep of 2010.