Republicans have a problem. It’s not entirely clear if they realize it yet, but it is a very real problem. And what is that problem: people can’t stand them when they actually get in power.
Sure, Republicans win elections in non-red states from time to time. In some years (1994 and 2010 come to mind) they win big – picking up lots of seats in years following recesions, when Americans feel bad about the economy or about immigrants or about life in general. At some times in our history, a majority of Americans want a stern father figure running things; they want to reign in the flightier impulses of the progressives among us, who tend to want to take care of everyone and everything.
But even that is part of Republicans’ problem. They tend to win “negative” elections — usally off year affairs when older, more crochety, whiter voters go to the polls to strike a blow against modernity.
What’s the deal?
Well, basically, it’s conservatism. Conservatism is by nature, negative. It opposes things, like minimum wage and child labor laws, collective bargaining, old age pensions, Medicare, and spending. On that last one, the trouble for Republicans is that people tell pollsters they don’t like spending, but they also love the results of spending — public schools and libraries, aid to the poor, roads without potholes, mail that gets delivered to your door without a fee… Americans like the fruits of spending. Republicans keep saying they want to cut spending, particularly spending that helps children, old people and the poor – and while that makes for great campaign rhetoric as a general princple (before you get into the specificis about the children and the old people and the poor), when it actually starts to happen, people hate it.
Which brings us to Wisconsin.
Scott Walker swore on that call with Fake David Koch that people just love him and what he’s trying to do to the state workforce (ironically, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi also claims that his people love him.) But do they love it? Do even Republicans love it when a governor tries to break unions and balance the budget on the backs of teachers, cops and firefighters? Signs point to no.
An overwhelming majority of Americans oppose taking away some of the collective bargaining rights that public employee unions now have and almost as many oppose cutting the pay or benefits of those workers, according to a nationwide New York Times/CBS News poll conducted Feb. 24-27.
The bargaining rights issue has taken center stage in Wisconsin, where pro-union demonstrators continue to sit in at the statehouse, and in Ohio, where Democrats and Republicans are battling over it in the state Legislature. In both states, Republicans are pushing measures that would eliminate collective bargaining over benefits, like health care and pensions, and limit such bargaining to wages only.
Sixty percent of those surveyed strongly or somewhat strongly opposed taking away some bargaining rights, while 33 percent somewhat or strongly favored doing so, with 7 percent undecided. Thirty-eight percent put themselves in the “strongly opposed” column.
The Times said a slim majority of Republicans backed taking away some rights, but big majorities of Democrats and independents opposed doing so.
Fifty-six percent somewhat or strongly opposed cutting pay or benefits of public employees, while 37 percent favored such action, with 7 percent undecided.
Americans were roughly split on the question of whether governors were pushing collective bargaining restrictions for political reasons or to reduce deficits. Forty-five percent believed their motive was reducing deficits, while 41 percent said it was too weaken unions.
The public also had mixed reactions to whether police and firefighters should be able to retire after 25 years even if they were in their 40s and 50s. Forty-nine percent said they should be allowed to do so, while 44 percent said they shouldn’t, with 6 percent undecided.
Thirty-six percent said the salaries and benefits of most public employees were “about right,” 26 percent said they were too high and 25 percent said they were too low, with 9 percent answering “depends” and 4 percent undecided.
The poll also found that only a quarter of Americans have an unfavorable view of unions, versus 33 percent with a positive view and about four in ten who had no opinion; and as for whether unions are seen as having too much influence, 37 percent agreed with that statement, compared with 19 percent who said “too little” and 29 percent who said the influence is “just right” — which means 48 percent of Americans either believe unions are just as influential as they should be, or not influential enough.
Meanwhile, Walker himself is becoming and increasingly isolated, almost desperate figure, issuing threats that sound more like pleas for the 14 Democratic Senators to return to the Capitol, and facing a poll reversal that would have him losing to his 2010 opponent if the election were held today.
It turns out, President Obama is right where most Americans are when it comes to unions. He told governors meeting in Washington today that while states need to balance their budgets, public sector emmployees should not be villified. The vast majority of Americans agree with the president, not the Republicans like Walker, and Joe Scarborough love sponge Chris Christie.
And wait til it begins to sink in with Americans that what they feel in their gut — that it’s wrong to try and balance the books on the backs of the middle class while letting corporations and the rich go free — is also terrible for the economy; that Republican ideas for cutting spending or even shutting down the government would crater the economy and cost nearly a million jobs. What then? Do Republicans take the Mitch Daniels approach and say, effectively, “so what?” … or do they take the John Boehner approach and say “so be it?”
Because either way, they’ll be reinforcing the biggest negative in the generalized image of Republicans — that they are heartless corporate shills.
Now Democrats have their image problems too — “soft on defense,” “destroying the culture with too much permissiveness,” “hostile to business…” But Democats’ image problems all have to do with being somehow “naively nice.” Repubicans — particularly conservatives, have a nasty sort of image that doesn’t work very well in a country enured to optimism.
And since sunny optimism is no longer rewarded in the GOP, which these days likes its stars mean — Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, mean girls like Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin; even poor TPaw is trying to mean up — there literally can’t be a Ronald Reagan figure … because he’d be derided by the pitchfork wielders as a RINO.
Republicans may not see that as a problem, but if they care about their prospects in 2012, when the old/white crowd will have company at the ballot box, they should.