We can't all be popular with everyone, but the Republican brand is on the verge of being popular with no one. A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll found that when people were asked to use a word or phrase to describe today's Republican Party, 65 percent of responses were negative and just 17 percent positive. Democrats were split at 35 percent positive, 37 percent negative.
If the Republican brand were a businesses that sold things, it would soon be out of business, unless, of course, it was a monopoly like an oil company. This simple poll result suggests the Republicans' problem is much more profound than revealed in the post-mortems of the recent election. Where might Republicans look for a more thorough diagnosis and course of treatment?
The answer comes from an unlikely source: President Obama's campaign pollster, Joel Benenson. Yesterday, he delivered by far the best analysis of the current state of the Republicans Party, and it rings devastatingly and comprehensively true: Republicans have a "tolerance" problem. Whether on gay rights, immigration, global warming or women's health issues, Republicans have sent repeated and off-putting messages. Benenson's is a unified theory of the problem, and he suggested, correctly, that it won't be solved piecemeal.
But here's the conundrum for Republicans. For years, the party's mainstream, whose concerns are solely economic, made a deal (Faustian) with the party's emerging social conservatives. You support us, and we will support your anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-immigration agenda. The Republican mainstream has always been about one thing: protecting its economic position. On social issues, it was always moderate to libertarian, and it hardly saw them as first-tier. Tolerating the zealots was a small price to pay for the support necessary to win elections. Now, however, the tail is wagging the dog in the Republican Party. What do you think would happen if the party removes its support for the Defense of Marriage Act? Adopts a pro-contraception position? Softens its stand against abortion? Embraces a more liberal position on immigration? Or admits global warming is real? Do you think the social conservatives will say, "Okay, I get it: This is the price of regaining popularity?"
The Republicans are in a bad place: stuck between the rock of a dying brand and the hard place of a band of fanatics.