What do Republicans have to show politically for the president’s travails? So far, there is little to suggest they have truly begun to solve the problems highlighted by Mitt Romney’s loss to Obama last November, party weaknesses that were cited in a post-election report by a Republican National Committee task force.
Congressional Republicans still have far lower approval ratings than the president, although so do congressional Democrats. That is almost always the case. But Republicans also have taken positions on issues this year that have left them on the wrong side of public opinion. Those issues include background checks for gun purchases, the best way to deal with the budget (spending cuts alone vs. a combination of cuts and taxes) and, to a lesser extent, whether illegal immigrants should be given a path to citizenship.
In a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, seven out of 10 Americans said the GOP is out of touch with the concerns “of most people” in the country. Neither Obama nor the Democratic Party has sterling ratings on this question (slightly positive for Obama and slightly negative for the Democratic Party). But the Republican deficit is far bigger than that of the other two. Even 49 percent of Republicans said their party is out of touch.
Republican opposition to universal background checks for gun purchasers continues to reverberate. The opposition may threaten few individual members, given the leanings of individual congressional districts or constituencies in largely Republican-leaning states. But it is likely to hurt Republicans in areas and among voters they need to win presidential races — suburbs and female voters being prime examples.
After an election in which their nominee won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, many Republicans said it was time to find a new strategy to attract Hispanics to the party. That brightened prospects for comprehensive immigration reform, which George W. Bush tried to enact in his second presidential term, only to be thwarted by his own party.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose conservative credentials were not in question, took the lead in working out a bipartisan proposal as a member of the Senate Gang of Eight that included Republicans John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). The group’s work raised the hopes of reform advocates that this was the year for action.
Since then, criticism has been rising on the right, echoing complaints from conservatives that killed prior reform efforts. In an op-ed he co-wrote in USA Today, former senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, president of the Heritage Foundation and once a strong Rubio backer, attacked the proposal as “legislated amnesty.” National Review’s latest cover shows the Florida senator along with two other members of the Gang of Eight — McCain and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — with the headline “Rubio’s Folly.”
Obama said Thursday in Mexico that he remains optimistic that an immigration reform bill will pass this year, saying the time is right for enactment. Rubio now says his proposal probably needs stronger border security measures to pass the Senate and earlier said the bill could not pass the House in its current form, presaging a rocky path ahead.
The legislative maneuvering has a long way to go. The fact that many of the Republicans who might run for president in 2016 favor immigration reform reflects concern that the party not be cast negatively when this process ends. If Republicans end up blocking the bill, or even if it passes but over significant Republican opposition, they could pay a significant price with the Hispanic community.
Republicans also have not broken through on the economy or the budget. Over the past three years, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has offered a series of comprehensive budgetary blueprints, but he has yet to muster broad public support for the main elements of his package.
The fact that Obama has spent the winter and spring talking about things other than the economy has given Republicans the opportunity to begin to fill that vacuum. So far they haven’t done so, rhetorically or substantively. To most voters, the Republican economic message remains focused more on green eyeshade budget accounting than on kitchen-table concerns of middle-class families.
Rubio’s engagement on immigration is an example of something that has been missing in the Republican Party’s overall approach during Obama’s tenure, which is a willingness to offer concrete and constructive ideas — to be for something rather than just against things — and to go out and really try to sell them.
Republican governors, from Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal to Wisconsin’s Scott Walker to New Jersey’s Chris Christie, to name three of the 30 GOP state leaders, have the opportunity to turn their conservative philosophy into a popular governing agenda that could be taken nationally in a presidential race. But for all the flurry of talk about the 2016 race already starting, at this point the governors are subordinate to the party’s congressional wing.
2014 vs. 2016
The year so far highlights the frustrations Obama has experienced trying to work his will on Capitol Hill. As long as his approval rating hovers at or below 50 percent, Republicans can look to the 2014 elections with optimism. But the year so far also points to the vulnerabilities of a congressionally based party whose members play to narrower constituencies. And as Republicans learned last year, there is often a big difference between the electorates in midterm elections and in presidential elections. A good 2014 does not necessarily mean success in 2016.
Had the president been able to maintain the momentum he gained from his reelection victory, Republicans would be in even worse shape. GOP pollster Bill McInturff pointed out that the fact that Obama has had setbacks and run into questions “has allowed breathing room for thought, recovery and some capacity to regroup.”
As long as Obama is in the White House, many Republicans will define success as stopping bad things from happening. That could be a trap, as the party trades short-term legislative “victories” for what could become longer-term problems. Obama has second-term problems, but in this case, politics might not be a zero-sum game. If Republicans fail to find a message and an agenda that appeal to a broader constituency, they could continue to struggle to win a national election.
For previous columns by Dan Balz,
go to postpolitics.com.