The Republican Party has almost nothing to offer the average voter. Large majorities of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most cases; taxes on the rich should not be cut; undocumented immigrants should be given a path to legalization; the environment should be prioritized over energy production; and the government should spend more money on Medicaid.
For as long as the GOP was in the opposition, this latter fact provided cover for the former one. Congressional Republicans could perform conservative purity for their base, while offering vague promises of “change” to the broader, dissatisfied public. And since Paul Ryan and company couldn’t actually pass their most heinously unpopular ideas into law, delivering for the tea-party crowd didn’t preclude appealing beyond it: In their fight against Obamacare, Republicans could equate Medicaid expansion with Stalinism to everyone on their email lists — while attacking the law for cutting Medicare and failing to provide truly universal coverage to the general public.
This strategy worked well. Obamacare became deeply unpopular. And Republicans leveraged their base’s energy; Democrats’ complacency; white America’s rage at hearing instructions repeated in Spanish; and the public’s general appetite for change into full control of the federal government.
But now, Americans’ dissatisfaction with their government is no longer a crutch for the GOP, but a handicap. And fulfilling the party’s obligations to its base — while stringing along swing voters with sweet nothings about a “better way” — is much more difficult. Republicans tried to find a way to do both during the health-care-reform fight, and ended up alienating the party’s hard-liners and moderates alike. Americans finally discerned that the Republican alternative to Obamacare was a tax cut for the rich — and, for the first time, Obama’s signature law became popular.
After three months in power, the GOP is hemorrhaging support. Before Donald Trump took office, Pew Research found that 47 percent of Americans approved of the Republican Party, while 49 percent disapproved. In Pew’s latest poll, those figures are 40 percent and 57 percent, respectively.
Granted, the Democratic Party has also bled support since January. Back then, 51 percent of Americans approved of the donkey party, while 45 percent disapproved; today, those numbers are upside down. But still, the GOP has suffered a sharper drop in popularity, and now trails the Democratic Party by wide margins on a variety of political issues — including areas like foreign policy and immigration, where Republicans have historically enjoyed an advantage.
The only issue that Republicans enjoy a double-digit advantage on is terrorism. But even on that subject, the party’s standard-bearer hardly enjoys commanding support. As Pew Research writes:
While 31% say Trump’s policies have made the U.S. safer when compared with the policies of Barack Obama’s administration, 33% say they have made the country less safe; another 33% say they haven’t made much of a difference. But more say Trump’s policies have placed the U.S. in a weaker than stronger position internationally (45% vs. 31%), while 20% say his policies have put the U.S. in about the same position as Obama’s policies.
Meanwhile, 52 percent of Americans say the GOP is “too extreme,” a charge only 40 percent make against Democrats. Team Blue is also more widely seen as boasting “good policy ideas” — 58 percent say the Democrats have some of those, only 49 say the same about the GOP.
Trump himself remains mired at 39 percent approval in Pew’s survey, just where he was back in February. However, the public’s confidence in his capacity to make good deals with Congress has fallen sharply: In December, 60 percent believed Trump knew the art of the congressional deal; now only 46 percent do.
A separate Gallup poll out Monday confirms the public’s fading confidence in Trump’s efficacy as a leader. In February, 62 percent of Americans told the pollster that Trump keeps his promises; now, only 45 percent say that. That same survey finds that the percentage of Americans who believe Trump can bring about “the change this country needs” has fallen from 53 to 46.
In recent days, President Trump has signaled a desire to revive his health-care bill and make good on his promise to repeal Obamacare. But even if the White House found a way of pushing its deeply unpopular plan through Congress, such a win would be unlikely to rescue his image, or that of his party.
The truth is, Republicans can’t keep their promises to the American people, because they promised their base and the broader public very different things. Trump can’t honor his vow to achieve health care and pass a version of Obamacare repeal that his party would support. Nor can he pass a “middle-class tax cut,” when his party’s overriding priority is to alleviate the tax burden on the wealthy.
The GOP is a radical, reactionary party that has secured control of the federal government, despite a dearth of public support for its agenda. This is no small achievement. But now that they’ve got their grip on power, they can offer a majority of the American public one of two things: a status quo that voters find unsatisfying, or change they can’t believe in.