Iowa is awash in presidential candidates right now, and for the next week they will be focused on turning out their voters for the caucuses. But a larger worry should be part of their calculation: how to reverse the damage the Republican brand has suffered in the past year.
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.
They might recover in time for their own reelection campaigns in 2014, but the Republican presidential nominee might not be able to escape some of the current fallout. Furious public backlash at the aggressive collective-bargaining policies of Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rattled those two key battleground states. Kasich was rebuffed in a November referendum, and Walker faces a potential recall election in the spring. Democrats also believe that reaction to the policies of Gov. Rick Scott is helping the president’s prospects in Florida.
Then there’s the unexciting field of Republican presidential candidates. A number of the GOP’s strongest politicians stayed out of the race, leaving the party with one of its weakest fields in many campaigns.
Many of those candidates have left even Republican voters wondering whether they are ready to be president. The most obvious case was businessman Herman Cain. Although he quit the race amid allegations of sexual impropriety, his lack of preparation when discussing crucial issues deflated voters’ confidence in his ability to lead the nation.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race late, and his performance so far has only highlighted how ill prepared he was for the rigors of the presidential campaign trail. He hopes to reverse that impression with a final-week spurt in Iowa, but he faces big hurdles.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) is battling similar questions, despite a strong performance in the last debate. Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) has focused on only the most conservative voters. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) holds problematic views that compromise his ability to be the standard-bearer for the party.
Few doubt that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich have the experience to be president. Both recognize they need to appeal beyond the party’s conservative base. But each faces scrutiny from rank-and-file Republicans.
The shifting allegiances of Republican voters suggest not only a vote of no confidence in many of the candidates but also unresolved divisions within the party. The next nominee will have to bridge that divide. Republicans are united on many policy issues, but the tea party’s influence has pushed all the presidential candidates to the right. And Obama has seized the opportunity to argue to independent voters that, whatever their disappointment with his record, they should think twice before handing power to the Republicans.
There’s little that Republican candidates can do about all of this in the next few weeks. They’ll be busy competing with one another to win over voters in their own party in the Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida contests. But if they don’t address the larger doubts about the party, they risk underdog status when facing Obama next November.