The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey is filled with ominous news for the president.
It’s not simply that the president’s approval ratings are near all-time lows for him in this particular poll (43 approve v. 51 disapprove). Or that for the third-straight survey those who view Obama negatively (44 percent) outnumber those who view him positively (42 percent). It’s also the sour and anxious mood of the nation.
Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed (68 percent) believe the country has either gotten worse or stayed stagnant during the Obama era. Fifty-nine percent say they are either “pessimistic and worried” or “uncertain and wondering” about Obama’s remaining time in office. By a 39 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans believe the country is currently worse off compared with where it was when Obama first took office (29 percent say it’s in the same place). And when asked what one or two words best describes the state of the union, here are the top three responses: “divided” (37 percent), “troubled” (23 percent), and “deteriorating” (21 percent). Only 28 percent of those surveyed say we’re on the right track. And the president’s instantly forgettable State of the Union address won’t change any of that.
But before Republicans rejoice too much, they should consider this finding: Only 24 percent of the public has a very or somewhat positive view of the GOP, whereas 47 percent have a very or somewhat negative view of the Republican Party (28 percent are neutral). So nearly twice as many Americans now hold negative views about the Republican Party as positive ones. (As a point of comparison, 37 percent have a very or somewhat positive view of the Democratic Party v. 40 percent a very or somewhat negative view of the Democratic Party, with 22 percent neutral.)
There are, I suspect, several different things going on at once. There’s clearly a deep disenchantment with American politics today, and it’s directed at both parties, most politicians, and many of our political institutions. There is a great deal of frustration that things aren’t working as they should, and the entire political class has been implicated.
Yet there’s no getting around the fact that the Republican Party is in a very precarious situation. In the fall of 2013, for example, in the wake of the government shutdown, the GOP recorded the lowest favorable rating measured for either party since Gallup began asking this question in 1992. Which means Republicans have a tremendous amount of work to do in order to win back the confidence of most Americans.
Different people recommend different solutions. Some will argue that the GOP has been too easy on the president and that its rhetoric hasn’t been sufficiently anti-government. They will argue that those on the right need to amp up their declamations against Mr. Obama, invoking words like “Marxist,” “coup,” and “tyranny” to describe him. The key to making the GOP more popular is for it to become more strident, the language more apocalyptic. People in this camp think the government shutdown was an impressive victory for the conservative cause and backfired only because of a failure of nerve by Republicans. They believe the contemporary politicians whom Republicans should pattern themselves after are Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz.
Readers of this site know that I’m of a different view, that the leaders of the GOP and the conservative movement, while leveling very tough criticisms at the president, also need to carry themselves with a degree of grace and winsomeness. They need to be less agitated and more agreeable, in possession of strong convictions and moderate temperaments. They need to demonstrate a genuine interest in justice and those living in the shadows of society. And they need to propose far-reaching conservative reforms that constitute an actual governing vision, one that matches the challenges of this moment.
Which is why the recent health-care plan put forward by Senators Burr, Coburn, and Hatch is so encouraging. An alternative to the Affordable Care Act, It would cover pre-existing conditions, provide universal coverage, reform Medicaid, and promote medical liability reform and market-oriented policies. (Among the specific proposals is to extend a tax credit for the purchase of health insurance to all Americans below 300 percent of the poverty level who don’t have health coverage from a large employer.) No piece of legislation is perfect, and neither is this one. But I agree with those who consider it to be the most impressive conservative health-care plan yet put forward by Republican lawmakers.
There are, then, several currents of thought that exist in the modern GOP. The debate isn’t between those who are conservative and those who are not so much as it’s between those who have some important disagreements over what constitutes authentic conservatism. The debate involves differences in tone and style and divergent interpretations of the federalist Founders and the Constitution, the role of government, and the conservative tradition.
It’s a fascinating debate, really, and at times quite a spirited one. Whichever side prevails will go some distance toward determining the future of conservatism and the country.