As I mentioned yesterday, as of mid-December some 53 percent of Americans perceived the Republican Party as too extremist, a record-high number that had jumped 17 percentage points in the two years since the GOP took control of the House in the 2010 mid-terms.
Given what has happened in the three weeks since that CNN poll was released — the GOP House rejected John Boehner’s fiscal-cliff plan as too moderate, and it refused to even vote on an emergency aid package for New York and New Jersey — that number has only risen.
In fact, the party is caught in a long-term downward spiral that will prove difficult if not impossible to escape.
Look at the top issues likely to dominate the 113th Congress: immigration reform, gun control, and the debt ceiling. On each of those high-profile issues, the Republican Party finds itself trapped defending a strongly held but distinctly minority point of view.
In November exit polls, for example, 65 percent of American voters said that illegal immigrants ought to be offered an avenue to legal status. To put it mildly, that is not a position that Republicans can easily reconcile with their base. And in a recent Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans said they backed stronger gun-control laws; just 6 percent wanted less stringent gun laws, which is the default position of many in the GOP.
The debt-ceiling optics are even worse. The GOP plan is to confront President Obama with two brutal choices: Make serious cuts in Medicare and other entitlements, or Republicans will force the country to default on its debt. Maybe it’s just me, but if you’re trying to shuck a reputation as extremist, that’s not exactly the course I would recommend. As I’ve noted before, even Republican voters oppose Medicare cuts by an overwhelming margin. Yet somehow Republican politicians have convinced themselves that this is a battle that they must fight and can win.
And of course, the group that will continue to define the Republican brand in all these fights will be the House GOP caucus, a group that is considerably more conservative and yes, extremist, than the country at large. It’s not hard to understand why.
Take Georgia’s Republican House members as an example. All eight of them voted against the fiscal-cliff solution that President Obama signed into law yesterday. And all eight are likely to toe the hard-right line on immigration, gun control and the debt ceiling. And the truth is that based on their own narrow self-interest, they’d be fools to do otherwise.
Thanks to gerrymandering, a political evil in which both parties indulge, three of the eight are in such strong GOP districts that no Democrat even bothered to run against them last November. The five who did draw Democratic opposition won re-election by an average margin of 40 percentage points. So none of the eight has anything to gain personally by becoming more moderate.
That brings us to the ultimate question: How can the Republican Party shed its reputation as extremist on the national stage when most of those who create that reputation — the members of the House GOP caucus — have every incentive as individuals to continue on their present course?
I confess I’m stumped by that one.
– Jay Bookman