For Republicans in Congress, polls provide conflicting messages when it comes to the fiscal cliff negotiations. In some polls, self-identified Republicans are pushing Congress to compromise. But everyone’s in favor of compromise in theory, until they get down to specifics. And compromise is by no means the only message in the data. There is plenty pulling Republicans in Congress to maintain their ground. Understanding how Republicans are approaching the negotiations requires assessing the factors pushing and pulling them in different directions.
Push: On the surface, there is broad support for a compromise. Sixty-two percent told Gallup that they wanted government leaders in Washington to compromise on their principles and beliefs on the fiscal cliff negotiations. This preference extended across partisan lines, including 55% of self-identified Republicans.Pull: To hear Democrats tell it, increasing taxes on the wealthy is something that would be well received by the Republican base. It wouldn’t. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, a majority of Republicans opposed raising income taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year. And when given the choice among spending cuts, tax increases, or a combination of both to solve the deficit, a majority of Republicans sided with spending cuts over a balanced approach.
Push: Republicans are alarmed about the consequences of negotiations failing. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans (and 53% of all adults) told Quinnipiac pollsters that they expect the effects of sequestration to be bad for their personal financial situation. Sixty-two percent of Republicans told Economist/Yougov pollsters that sequestration will hurt the economy badly. In fact, Republicans were more likely to conclude this than Democrats or Independents. Averting these assumed consequences would be a positive for any compromise.
Pull: Even some Republican proposals aren’t popular among Republicans. In the Quinnipiac poll, Republicans opposed cutting Medicaid (53% opposed), raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 (a plurality of 48% opposed), and eliminating the home mortgage deduction (67% opposed). This doesn’t exactly put Republicans in Congress in the best of negotiating positions.
Push: With approval ratings as low as they are, Congress shouldn’t actively try to make itself more unpopular. According to Gallup’s data, the approval rating of Congress has generally been below 20% since 2010. It currently resides at 18%. But despite its low approval rating, despite repeated failures, and despite all evidence to the contrary, a sizable portion of Americans expect Congress and the president to be able to reach a compromise. Talk about optimism. Congress has a vested interest in maintaining a shred of credibility.
The desire for compromise and for a functional Congress may override specific policy preferences for Republicans. But that largely depends on the nature of the compromise, if there is one. Successful negotiations will enable Republicans to temper the forces pulling them from the negotiating table, but if recent accounts are to be believed of the negotiations, there seems little that would satisfy Republicans. Honest negotiations will at least begin with the premise that Republicans have conflicting incentives when it comes to the fiscal cliff.