The Crisis of the Republican Brand

The GOP is losing the fiscal cliff debate—and further destroying its own brand in the process. Douglas E. Schoen and Jessica Tarlov on the latest polls.

12.06.12 9:45 AM ET

With the Jan. 1 fiscal cliff deadline fast approaching, a new Pew Research Center poll suggests that the GOP is losing the fiscal debate. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed said they would blame Republicans if the crisis isn’t resolved; only 27 percent said they would blame President Obama.

What is going on here? First, let’s consider the possibility that some of the anti-GOP sentiment could merely be a result of generic dislike of Congress (the House is controlled by Republicans). In a recent Gallup poll, just 10 percent of respondents gave members of Congress a high or very high rating for honesty and ethics, while 54 percent gave them a low or very low rating. And our own polling shows that overall disappointment with Congress is running high: In a survey conducted right after the election, we found that while just 34 percent of Americans have a favorable view of congressional Republicans, the favorability rating for congressional Democrats (39 percent) was only marginally better.

At the same time, there is good reason to believe that, whatever Americans’ feelings about Congress as an institution, the current anti-Republican sentiment is a function of the substantive issues currently being debated in Washington. Two-thirds of Americans, according to a recent CNN poll, say they favor a mix of spending cuts and tax increases—which is essentially the Democratic position in the fiscal cliff negotiations. It seems that Republicans, with their repeated insistence that they will not consider raising taxes on wealthy Americans, are taking a position that people simply find too hardline. And Obama, by advocating a balanced approach, has managed to position himself as the more moderate, appealing party in this negotiation.

So what should the GOP do? The answer is obvious: Republicans need to start articulating a message that shows some trace of conciliatory spirit. This shouldn’t be difficult. There is plenty of room for a conciliatory message on the fiscal cliff that is still to the right of Obama’s proposal: Republicans, for instance, could say that they favor a tax increase on the wealthy, but then argue that Obama’s proposed tax increase is too large.

The Republican Party is truly in crisis, and that crisis is now coming to a head. The popular vote in the most recent election was less an endorsement of Obama’s performance than a refutation of GOP extremism. The fiscal cliff negotiations have presented the perfect opportunity for Republicans to begin to repair their brand—to refashion themselves as a moderately conservative party that is open to compromise. But Republicans seem determined not to seize this opportunity. Until they do, their brand will remain in trouble.