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The New Year Can’t Come Soon Enough for the GOP

As the end of the year approaches, it’s difficult not to see the two parties heading in very different directions.

Democrats have emerged from the 2012 elections stronger, while Republicans look poorly positioned and divided.

Politics, of course, is famous for its ups and downs, its unexpected twists and unforced errors. Because of that, it’s impossible to know how the two parties’ positions will change over the next few months. Victory inevitably produces over-confidence, while defeat gives politicians and political parties an opportunity to reassess and re-position.

Still, for too long Republicans have boxed themselves into the position of appearing to represent millionaires, Wall Street and extremists on social issues. Democrats, on the other hand, have succeeded in positioning themselves as defenders of the middle class, working men and women, minorities and the socially tolerant.

Of course these are caricatures, and therefore not entirely fair. But the polls tell the story.

Almost half of respondents in a Dec. 5-9 ABC News/Washington Post poll approved of President Barack Obama’s handling of the fiscal cliff negotiations, while 42 percent disapproved. But only 25 percent approved of Speaker John A. Boehner’s handling of the negotiations, while 49 percent disapproved.

A more recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, conducted Dec. 13-16, showed voters giving Democrats higher marks than Republicans on everything from how they are handling their job in Congress to whom they trust to handle the economy. The president even received higher marks than Republicans in Congress on handling the budget deficit. (One word of caution: Any question that includes the word “Congress” or pits Congress against the president is likely to benefit Obama, since Congress’s reputation is so low.)

In a Dec. 6-9 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 30 percent of those sampled had positive feelings toward the Republican Party, while 45 percent had negative feelings. In contrast, 44 percent had a positive impression of the Democratic Party, while 35 percent had negative feelings.

While Republicans have sought to present themselves as opponents of higher taxes and advocates of economic growth, they have lost that argument, at least for the moment, with the American people.

Republican leaders waited far too long to accept a tax hike on the wealthiest Americans — those who earn more than $1 million — in exchange for the continuation of the Bush-era tax cuts for all others, and it isn’t even clear that moving to that position weeks ago would have helped the GOP measurably.

Republicans may well be correct that the nation’s biggest problem is that “the government spends too much, not that it taxes too little,” but at some point political realities rather than ideological beliefs or past party dogma ought to guide both party leaders and members of its rank and file.

Of course, most dispassionate observers believe that Boehner isn’t the problem.

The Ohio Republican is limited in what he can do by his membership, and it is still far from clear how far the House GOP will go in supporting higher taxes.

Interest groups on the right haven’t hesitated in bashing reports of Boehner’s inevitable moves to compromise.

One tea party group, the Independence Hall Tea Party, “condemned” Boehner for even “negotiating” with the president to raise taxes on the wealthy, accusing the speaker of “capitulating” to Obama.

The Club for Growth, which on Monday announced its opposition to the Superstorm Sandy relief bill, also attacked Boehner for offering to raise taxes and increase the debt ceiling, hardly surprising since most in the conservative group almost certainly would prefer to fall off the fiscal cliff rather than raise revenue to avoid it. The gun control debate certainly isn’t likely to help Republicans over the next few months either.

Most Democrats are likely to support efforts to enact more restrictive laws, while most Republicans will oppose such moves. Obviously, the details of the proposals are important, but if the GOP appears to be the party that defends the rights of people who massacre small children and opposes any steps to address gun violence, it’s likely to further damage its standing with suburban voters.

The lone piece of good news for Republicans has been South Carolina GOP Gov. Nikki R. Haley’s appointment of Republican Rep. Tim Scott to Jim DeMint’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat.

Democrats tend to dismiss the increased visibility of Republican women, Hispanics and officeholders of color as mere window-dressing by a political party still dominated by old white men.

Even if there is some truth to that, it’s crucial for the GOP to show voters that it is, and aims to be, a more diverse party than it was. And having more officeholders from different demographic groups simply makes it easier for the Republican Party to talk with those voters and change the existing stereotype.

Stuart Rothenberg (@stupolitics) is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (

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