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July 23, 2013 1:01 PM Which Way, GOP?

By Ed Kilgore

You’d think there might be a broader discussion of this rather startling finding from a new WaPo-ABC survey, as presented by ABC’s Gary Langer:

Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party are generally pleased with their leaders’ efforts; 72 percent say Democratic leaders are taking the party the right direction. (Easier to say, perhaps, when your party holds the White House.)
It’s a far different story on the Republican side, where half as many partisans and Republican-leaning independents, 37 percent, say their leaders are taking the GOP in the right direction. Fifty-two percent instead say their own leaders are headed the wrong way, up 20 points from last August (when the White House seemed winnable) and a majority for the first time in six poll results dating to 1994.

Other than suggesting that the happiness of Democrats with their leadership is attributable to its success in hanging onto the White House in 2012, Langer offers no theories for this rather shocking disparity. Nor does he, or the poll itself, provide any particular information about why Republican disgruntlement is so historically elevated, other than, again, the suggestion that it’s a byproduct of the 2012 results.

It is, unfortunately, the kind of public opinion finding that can support diametrically opposed conclusions. Do Republicans view their leadership (presumably in Congress) as too confrontational or as too accommodating to compromise? Are they focused on the right or wrong issues? Do they tend to support the recommendations of various “rebranders” that the party become more flexible ideologically and reach out to previously hostile constituencies, or the more recent backlash holding that Republicans should intensify their conservative message and mobilize allegedly unmotivated conservative white voters?

The Jon Cohen/Dan Balz piece for WaPo on the poll deepens the mystery:

Nor does there seem to be a consensus on what direction the party ought to take. About six in 10 “moderate” Republicans and GOP-leaning independents say their leadership is moving the party in the wrong direction. But so do 53 percent of those who self-identify as “very conservative.”
In all, 62 percent of Republicans say they prefer that political leaders cooperate with Democrats, while 32 percent say they should hold firm to their positions and principles. But dissatisfaction with the direction charted by GOP leaders is about equal in both groups.

It’s tempting to conclude that Republicans just have a leadership that lacks appeal regardless of where they are heading, or that the “direction” it is providing is too unclear or inconsistent. If the latter shortcoming is the problem, then you have to wonder why Democrats are so pleased with Obama’s leadership, given the constant concerns Democratic opinion-leaders express about his lack of clear strategic direction.

The easiest answer is that Obama himself has become so galvanizing a figure in American politics that partisan disagreements revolve entirely around him and rarely reflect comparative judgments about the GOP leadership. If so, what does that tell Republican leaders? Should they “work with” a president who enrages their own rank-and-file and will invariably outflank and outshine them in the perspective of less partisan voters? Or fight him tooth and nail, knowing that will please “the base” whether or not they think highly of their champions?

We can only hope some deeper and more explicit polling will be available to fill out this hazy view of partisan perspectives.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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