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Is Mitch McConnell right about the GOP brand?

Image: Senate Republicans Address Media After Party Meeting
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives at a news conference on July 12 on Capitol Hill. McConnell has proposed allowing Obama to raise the debt limit on his own.Alex Wong / Getty Images
/ Source: National Journal

If the Republican Party was a soda, its brand after the 2008 election was akin to bottom-shelved RC Cola.

But the market quickly improved for the GOP. Amid the Democratic administration’s slipping poll numbers, the party repackaged its label to look more like Coke.

Now, some prominent Republicans are worried that the tempestuous talks between congressional leaders and the White House over raising the debt ceiling could strip the GOP of some of its hard-won luster. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the failure to reach a deal, forcing the government to default on its financial obligations, could have devastating consequences for the party. He recalled the federal government shutdown under former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich that helped then-President Clinton, a Democrat, win a second term.

“The reason default is no better an idea today than when Newt Gingrich tried it in 1995 is that it destroys your brand,’’ McConnell said in a radio interview on Wednesday. “It would give the president an opportunity to blame Republicans for a bad economy.’’

McConnell has proposed allowing Obama to raise the debt limit on his own to give political cover to Republicans in Congress while staving off a potential financial disaster.

With the August 2 deadline set by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner more than two weeks away, other party leaders say it’s too soon to predict winners or losers in the public-relations war. Depending on how the negotiations go and the final outcome, the Democratic party may end up shouldering at least as much blame as the GOP, which controls the House but not the Senate or the White House. Still, some initial polls suggest discomfort with the Republican Party’s refusal to consider any tax increases.

A Gallup Poll released this week showed only 20 percent of Americans think Congress should lower the deficit only with spending cuts. Thirty percent favor deficit reduction through mostly spending cuts, while 32 percent back a mix of cuts and tax hikes.

A Quinnipiac University survey this week found that most voters disapprove of how the president is handling the economy, but they trust him more than congressional Republicans. Voters will blame Republicans over Obama, 48 percent to 34 percent, if the debt limit is not raised, according to the poll.

Former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who heads the conservative American Action Network, said McConnell is right about the political consequences of default.

“If default pushes us over the brink, then all of a sudden Republicans will get the blame even though Obama put us in this position,’’ he said. “There will be a price to pay.’’

In one indicator of what the party's brand has to lose, a Gallup poll released on Thursday showed, for the first time, a generic Republican candidate beating Obama in 2012, 47 percent to 39 percent. The survey asked: "Are you more likely to vote for Barack Obama or for the Republican party's candidate for president?''

Al Hoffman, a national cochairman for Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns, said in a New York Times column on Thursday that the GOP should agree to tax increases – as long as every $1 in new revenue goes toward deficit reduction and is matched by at least $4 in spending cuts. “In the face of a possible debt default by the federal government, Republicans need to embrace the principle of compromise,’’ he wrote.

Republican pollster David Winston, who has advised House and Senate leaders for the past decade, argued that the Democratic party is just as likely to suffer political costs because of Obama’s insistence on a “poison pill’’ of tax increases in the deal.

“Given how far out we are from the conclusion, it’s unclear how the public would assign blame, and if an agreement isn’t reached, it will be negative for the entirety of Washington,’’ he said. “Republicans fundamentally believe that raising taxes would cause the economy to contract when we want it to expand.’’

One Republican House member who isn’t worried about political fallout is Rep. Allen West of Florida, a tea party success story who vowed not to raise taxes when he was elected in 2010.

“I’ve never worried about getting blamed for stuff,’’ he said, “as long as I stand by my principles.’’

The article, "Is Mitch McConnell right about the GOP brand," first appeared in the National Journal.