Why John Boehner’s Life Is About To Become Very Difficult

Three surveys released in the past week—Pew, Bloomberg, and CBS/New York Times—illuminate what the American people want from the new Congress that convenes next January. Taken together, these polls offer a warning to a new Republican majority: If you push your limited government agenda too far or refuse to cooperate with Democrats and the White House, you’ll pay a price.

Here’s a question from the Bloomberg poll:

If Republicans win control of Congress, what do you want to happen—do you want the parties to stick to their principles even if it means gridlock and nothing gets done, or do you want the parties to work together even if it means compromising some principles?

The response:

Stick to principles: 16 percent

Work together even if it means compromising: 80 percent

And here are two questions and their answers from CBS/NYT:

What do you think Barack Obama should do—compromise some of his positions in order to get things done, or stick to his positions even if it means not getting as much done?

Compromise: 69 percent

Stick to positions: 22 percent

What do you think the Republicans in Congress should do—compromise some of their positions in order to get things done, or stick to their positions even if it means not getting as much done?

Compromise: 78 percent

Stick to positions: 15 percent

When CBS/New York Times asked people not what they thought Obama and the Republicans should do but, rather, what they expected Obama and the Republicans would do, 72 percent thought that Obama would try to work with Republicans—but only 46 percent thought that the Republicans would try to work with Obama.

The bottom line is that people want results, they know that getting results will require compromise, and they are predisposed to blame Republicans rather than the president if they get confrontation and gridlock instead.

So what of the Republicans’ agenda? Will it jibe with what the public wants?

On October 27, Bloomberg reported that House Republicans plan to slash $100 billion from non-defense discretionary spending as early as January. The Bloomberg survey, released the following day, then asked people to consider some of the things Republicans want to accomplish in the new Congress and say whether they definitely want the GOP to follow through or not. Some of the responses:

Cut federal spending in areas like education and health care,

excluding Social Security, Medicare, and defense: 31 percent

Repeal the health care law: 52 percent

There were also some parallel Pew questions:

Do you approve or disapprove of freezing all government spending, except on national security?

Approve: 43 percent (44 percent among likely voters)

Disapprove: 48 percent (50 percent among likely voters) 

Do you approve or disapprove of repealing the health care legislation enacted this year?  

Approve: 49 percent (51 percent among likely voters)

Disapprove: 39 percent (41 percent among likely voters)

The people’s message for the Republicans in these responses: We don’t like how Obama has expanded spending, but we don’t like all your plans for shrinking it either. There are parts of government we like, and you’d better leave them alone.

Granted, in the CBS/New York Times poll, 55 percent of respondents said they would rather have a smaller government providing fewer services than a bigger government providing more services, while only 36 percent said the opposite. This would seem to bode well for Republicans—until you consider the next question:

How important is reducing government spending to you—is it the single most important issue, or is it important but so are other issues . . .?

Single most important    : 21 percent

Important, but so are others: 66 percent 

Here, the public’s message to Republicans is again clear: If you attach a higher priority to budget-cutting than we do while ignoring the collateral damage it inflicts on other things we care about, you’ll lose credibility with us. Obama did some things we didn’t like, but that doesn’t mean we sent you to Washington to ignore our wishes on a different set of issues.

These polls pose a serious problem for the Republican leadership. The new conservative majority will contain up to 80 members who are in sync with the Tea Parties or who owe their seats to Tea Party support, making many of them among 21 percent who think that cutting spending is the single most important thing they can do in Congress. (Some of them have already said that they won’t even vote to increase the debt limit next year.) GOP leaders are going to have to balance this reality on the Hill with the opposing reality of a public that wants more than just budget-slashing—including compromise with the other side of the aisle.

Representative Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference and a leader of the congressional conservatives, recently opined that, “I don’t think the American people are electing a new generation to Washington, D.C. in the hopes that Congress and the White House can get along better.” Either this week’s surveys are all wrong, or Pence is. And the fact that he believes what he does means that we’re in for a bumpy ride until the American people blow the whistle on the new majority, just as they did when Newt Gingrich & Co. went too far in their confrontation with Bill Clinton.

It’s sometimes said that the president has the worst job in Washington. Maybe so. But, by next spring, John Boehner may conclude that being speaker is a close second.

Also, watch Bill Galston’s full interview with the Wall Street Journal about John Boehner’s Tea Party Problem