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First Thoughts: GOP goes off the image cliff

NBC/WSJ poll: GOP already goes off one cliff -- the image cliff… American public: We want compromise… But this also presents dilemma for White House: Does it bend over backwards to achieve compromise, or does it try to make the GOP cry “Uncle”?... Who gets the blame if the country goes over the cliff? Answer: Both sides… But Obama and the Democrats also have the upper hand… The other big news from our poll: Majority, for the first time, supports gay marriage… And Clinton to testify on Benghazi.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who conferred with President Barack Obama yesterday by phone, walks to a closed-door meeting with the GOP caucus, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, on Capitol Hill.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who conferred with President Barack Obama yesterday by phone, walks to a closed-door meeting with the GOP caucus, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, on Capitol Hill.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

*** GOP goes off the image cliff: The clock is ticking over whether President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner can avoid going over the so-called fiscal cliff at the beginning of next year. But our new NBC/WSJ poll shows that the Republican Party has already gone off one cliff, per co-pollster Peter Hart (D) -- the image cliff. The GOP’s fav/unfav rating in the poll now stands at 30%/45% (minus-15), which is down from 36%/43% (minus-7) right before the election. That’s compared with the Democratic Party’s 44%/35% rating (plus-9). And other than self-described Republicans and conservatives, just two other groups have a net positive view of the GOP: folks who live in rural America (39%/33%) and folks who live in the South (39%/38%), that’s it. What’s more, asked to give a word or short phrase to describe the Republican Party, 65% offered a negative comment, including MORE THAN HALF of Republicans. The top responses: “Bad,” “weak,” “negative,” “uncompromising,” “need to work together,” “broken,” “disorganized” and “lost.” By contrast, 37% gave negative descriptions of the Democratic Party, while 35% were positive. A Republican politician or operative might look at our poll and say, “Well, the good news is that our numbers can’t get any lower.” That might be true, and they could very well drag Democrats down with them if there isn’t a deal. But there’s another way to look at the poll: Republicans have a lot to gain, too. And if they want to be a competitive national party again and not simply a regional, rural party, they need to make gains.

*** The American public: We want compromise: The reason they have a lot to gain is that the American public -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike -- wants compromise. According to the poll, two-thirds of respondents (67%) are willing to accept an increase in taxes or cuts in federal government programs they care about to reach an agreement to avoid the problem. What’s more, a whopping 76% say it would be acceptable increasing taxes on those who earn more than $250,000 to avoid the cliff, and that includes 61% of Republican respondents. Indeed, for the first time in our poll, a majority of Republicans (59%) say they want GOP leaders to make compromises to gain consensus in the current budget debate. Previously, in 2011, majorities of Republicans said they preferred GOP leaders to stick to their positions rather than make compromises. And the percentage of Democrats who favor compromise on this question (70%) is now at an all-time high in the survey.

*** Does the White House seek compromise -- or total victory? But these numbers present the Obama White House with a dilemma: How does it proceed during what looks like a stalemate right now in the budget negotiations? Does it bend over backwards with Boehner and House Republicans just to get a deal, even if it gives up much of the leverage it has with the Bush-era tax cuts and after last month’s presidential election? Or does it -- as some Democrats and many progressives are urging -- hold fast and be willing to go off the cliff to break the Republican Party and make it cry, “Uncle”? This is a tricky situation for the White House, because there is every chance that we simply go from fiscal cliff to other fiscal cliff over the next few years, and that could end up being politically painful for the White House and could mean the hope of getting OTHER legislative accomplishments in 2013 remote (think immigration or energy or education). 

*** Who is to blame if there isn’t a deal? Answer: Both sides: If there is no compromise on the fiscal cliff and the automatic tax increases and spending cuts go into effect at the beginning of next year, 24% say they will blame congressional Republicans more, while 19% will point the finger at Obama and congressional Democrats. But a majority of respondents (56%) say they’ll blame both sides equally. Still, twice as many Americans say they trust the president more in handling this fiscal situation (38%) than House Speaker John Boehner and the congressional Republicans (19%). And significant majorities believe Obama holds a clear mandate from the election on issues related to this subject -- 65% say he has a mandate on reducing the deficit by BOTH increasing taxes on the wealthy and reducing federal spending, and 59% say he has a mandate on eliminating the Bush-era tax cuts for household income over $250,000 a year. The president has the upper hand as far as the public is concerned.

*** Pessimism and realism: But what’s also striking in our poll is how PESSIMISTIC and REALISTIC the American public has become. (Do we dare say they’re now conditioned by Washington gridlock?)  For starters, almost seven in 10 (69%) believe that the next year on Capitol Hill will be marked by division and little willingness to compromise. Compare that to four years ago, right after Obama’s first White House victory, when a majority (52%) said the next Congress would usher in a period of unity and working together. In addition, the poll finds 53% saying they are either “optimistic and confident” or “satisfied and hopeful” that Obama will do a good job as president after his re-election, versus 47% who are either uncertain or pessimistic.

*** Majority supports gay marriage: Finally, an historical note: For the first time ever in the NBC/WSJ poll, a majority of respondents -- 51% -- support same-sex marriage. That percentage in support is up from 30% in 2004, 41% in 2009 and 49% in March 2012, demonstrating how quickly public opinion on this issue has changed in just eight years.

*** Clinton to testify on Benghazi: Per NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced yesterday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will testify about the Benghazi attack on Thursday, Dec. 20 beginning at 9:00 am ET. Officials tell Mitchell that the report is expected to be sharply critical of the State Department security decisions prior to the fatal attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Speaking of Benghazi, the toll it had been taking on the president’s job rating on foreign policy is gone. The president is back up over 50% approval on foreign policy. But don’t miss the Susan Rice poll numbers in our survey. If she is nominated to be the next secretary of state, she’ll begin that confirmation fight with a net NEGATIVE personal rating (20%/24%) in our survey; for an unelected Cabinet-level official not named Clinton, she has a surprisingly HIGH name I.D., just 31% said they didn’t know who she was.

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