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11.27.11

The GOP’s Supercommittee Backlash

Across the political spectrum, Americans are appalled at Washington’s latest failure—but John Avlon crunches the numbers and explains why Republicans are getting the most flak.

Congressmen coming back from Thanksgiving break are hoping that a seasonal spirit of forgiveness—or the lingering effects of a food coma—will erase the supercommittee’s stain of failure.

It won’t. There will be an enduring political price to pay for last week’s pathetic face-plant. And while confidence in the entire institution’s capacity to reason together will continue to decline, polls show that congressional Republicans are taking the brunt of the blame, specifically among swing voters.

Here’s why: all the 2010 talk about dealing with the generational theft of deficits and debt ended up taking a back seat to antitax theology when it mattered most.

To add insult to the injury of this lost opportunity, there was actually broad agreement among the American public about a balanced plan that could have reduced the long-term deficit and debt while sacrificing Republican and Democrat sacred cows. People understand this was a failure of political will produced by the disproportionate influence of special interests.

Dig beneath the surface of Gallup’s new poll showing that 55 percent of Americans blame both parties for the failure of the supercommittee, and you’ll see the remaining breakdown leans decidedly against the GOP: 24 percent say Republicans were to blame, while 15 percent point the finger at Democrats. Among independent voters the split is even starker: 21 percent say the GOP was to blame, while just 9 percent say Democrats were the primary problem.

This corresponds with a CNN poll taken the week before the supercommittee decided to wave the white flag. It showed that 40 percent of independent voters would blame Republicans more for a supercommittee failure, while 24 percent would blame the Democrats. Likewise, 47 percent of self-identified centrists said they would blame the GOP, while 25 percent said the Dems would be most at fault.

The key dynamic to watch is the nearly 2-to-1 split when independents and centrists are asked which party is to blame for supercommittee failure. It’s not news to note that partisans are polarized along party lines when assigning blame—the real news is the verdict from these swing voters that Republicans are the primary culprit.

When taxes always trump deficit reduction, fiscal conservatism and fiscal responsibility have been delinked.

It’s consistent with the dynamics driving congressional approval rates to historic lows. Remember that independent voters swung the 2010 elections to the GOP by a 17-point margin. But a recent CNN poll showed only 15 percent of independents approve of Republican leadership in Congress, compared with 21 percent of Democrats—still a pathetic poll number but notably less bad from voters who reject both parties by definition.

Likewise, only 14 percent of moderate voters approve of Republican leadership in Congress—surprisingly, that’s same percentage of liberals who approve of the GOP leadership—while 31 percent approve of Democrats in Congress. Again, there’s that 2-to-1 margin despite the fact that everyone is underwater in Washington.

Of course, the real question is why such a split exists on the supercommittee. One answer can be found in the support that existed for the broad outlines of a bipartisan compromise.

Keep in mind that two thirds of Americans rarely agree on anything—but CNN polling earlier this month found that 67 percent of Americans supported raising taxes on higher-income Americans and businesses as part of a supercommittee plan to deal with the deficit and debt. Likewise, 66 percent supported major spending cuts to domestic government programs.

In contrast, only 12 percent of Americans supported raising taxes on middle-class or lower-income Americans as part of a deficit deal. And just 40 percent supported major cuts to the military, like the kind that now loom due to the sequestration scheduled to take effect because of the supercommittee’s failure.

Interestingly, while only 41 percent supported making major changes to Social Security and Medicare—a phrasing that plays into "Medi-scare" fears far beyond the modest formula adjustments that could create real long-term savings—that number was up from 35 percent in August.

In other words, there was ample public support for a grand bargain in addition to the congressional Gang of 150.  A not-incidental 54 percent of independents say that they wanted to see more compromise from the supercommittee in pursuit of a deal. The supercommittee failed because of a lack of political will—particularly on the part of Republicans who refused to consider any revenue increases unless they were accompanied by major reductions in the top tax rate or a permanent extension of all the Bush tax cuts.

Somewhere a liberal strategist is reading these numbers and patting himself on the back for counseling the benefits of supercommittee failure so Democrats can campaign as the defenders of Social Security and Medicare in 2012. That is cynical and shortsighted. The Democrats on the committee were disorganized and never publicly released a coordinated party plan, while activist groups like the AARP were running ads condemning even the prospect of compromise that affected their benefits. Likewise, President Obama deserves criticism for not backing the recommendations of his own Bowles-Simpson commission when he had the chance. And even a cursory glance at the members of Congress selected for this supercommittee gave reason to think they were always being set up for failure.

But Republican blame for the supercommittee failure is resonating because it calls into question their commitment to actually dealing with the deficit and the debt. After all, it was not a popular conservative cause when deficits first started to explode during the Bush era.  Instead, it seems to be a rallying cry when Democrats are in the White House, giving the impression that conservatives are more comfortable running against deficits and debt rather than actually making the tough decisions to deal with them—especially if it involves any new revenue.  When taxes always trump deficit reduction, fiscal conservatism and fiscal responsibility have been delinked.

The supercommittee is just the latest and most painful example of this dysfunctional, divided Congress. Its failure will only deepen negative narratives about how special interests have been allowed to crowd out the national interest in our politics with real costs. And swing voters are starting to assign blame in ways that should be both a warning and a wake-up call to congressional Republicans as they look to 2012.