Republicans Probably Aren't as Out of Touch With America as Polls Suggest

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 11:10 AM EDT

Yesterday Greg Sargent linked to a poll showing that 70 percent of Americans think the Republican Party is "out of touch with the concerns of most people in the United States today." What's more, the public sides with Democrats and President Obama on a wide range of major issues. This prompts Sargent to ask a question:

At what point does failure to support proposals designed to address the problems facing the country — ones backed by majorities — create a serious enough general problem for the GOP, by contributing to an overall sense that the party has simply ceased being capable of compromising on solutions to the major challenges we face?

....Is there any point at which the party’s overall image — and its unpopular stances on specific issues — actually do begin to matter in some concrete way? Is there any point at which it becomes clear that the current GOP strategy — make a deal with Democrats on immigration, but nothing else — is insufficient? What would that look like? Anyone?

I thought about responding to this yesterday, but I didn't really have anything insightful to say. I still don't. I've written a bit about this before, most recently a few weeks ago when I noted that, in fact, moving steadily to the right has been a pretty successful strategy for the Republican Party over the past three decades. We liberals keep thinking they can't possibly take another step in that direction without imploding completely, and yet they keep taking step after step and they keep winning elections. They have control of the House; they have a chance to win control of the Senate in 2014; and although they've lost the past two presidential elections, they were both contests in which the fundamentals favored Democrats. They've also done very well at the state level.

Now, I do think you can make a case that Republicans have a serious problem with the presidency. The fundamentals may have been with Democrats in 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012, but the fundamentals were with Republicans in 2000 and 2004 and they only won those elections by a whisker. That doesn't bode well for the GOP. Nevertheless, I think I'll wait until 2016 before I decide that they're well and truly doomed.

Still and all, what's the answer to Sargent's question? Polls really do seem to indicate that the public dislikes the Republican Party much more than it dislikes the Democratic Party. In particular, in the poll he cites above, only 51 percent say that Democrats are out of touch, compared to 70 percent who think Republicans are out of touch.

I can only guess. Partly, I think the filibuster gets some credit, because it prevents Republicans from really and truly enacting their most extreme agenda even when they have full control of the government, as they did from 2002-2006. At some level, voters understand this even if they don't understand Senate procedures. They understand that the loony talk from many Republicans never really translates into action, so they aren't very worried about it.

I also suspect that Republican success has a lot to do with Democratic failure. Voters may not agree with Republican priorities, but they aren't super thrilled with having Democrats in charge either. Rightly or wrongly, they're still afraid that Democrats will just raise taxes in order to fund a bunch of worthless programs that they don't understand and won't benefit from. Whatever else you can say about them, at least Republicans will put a brake on that.

Beyond that, don't forget that any poll's "out of touch" numbers will include right wingers who think the GOP is too centrist. The plain fact is that about 40 percent of Americans continue to identify as conservative. That's the same as it's been for decades, even though the definition of conservative has moved rightward. And it's twice as many as identify as liberal.

Democrats continue to have a weak brand. Contra Mitt Romney, they don't really offer voters much in the way of goodies, and even when they do offer some goodies with a program like Obamacare, they sell it so poorly that most people don't even understand what they're getting from it. Could that change? Maybe, though most of the big ticket social welfare programs are already in place, so there aren't tons of goodies left to hand out. That leaves small bore initiatives, and although those might poll well, they don't really turn out voters.

So what's left? Social issues. That's a liberal strong point right now, but the fact is that Republicans can adjust on social issues if they need to (gay marriage) and hang tight where they don't need to (gun control). If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, that might cause them some real problems, since the public does care about abortion, and isn't really on board with the kind of flat bans that the Republican base would insist on if it became legally doable. But that all depends on the Court.

Anyway, after all that, here's the short answer: Republicans aren't paying too big a price for being viewed as "out of touch" because the American public holds that view only weakly. That could change, but I'm not sure I see any signs of it happening in the near future.

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