Memo to the GOP: Focus on Independents

Republicans have fixated on the conservative base, and it could hurt them in 2012

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One of the many problems associated with Washington growing so venomously partisan over the last two decades is that everything has come to be seen as binary. Something is either "0" or "1," good or bad. And if one side looks bad, it is presumed that the other party looks better.

The debt-ceiling fight is a good example. While many of the more ideological Republicans in Congress perceive themselves as bravely standing on principle, the broader public sees them as adding to the dysfunction of a city and a process that were already screwed up.

A CBS News national survey of 810 adults conducted July 15-17 (margin of error plus or minus 4 percent) and released on Monday morning showed that only 43 percent of those polled approved of President Obama's handling of the debt-ceiling negotiations and only 31 percent approved of what Democrats in Congress have done on the issue. But that amounted to a rousing public cheer compared to the jaw-dropping 71 percent disapproval for Republicans on the issue. Only 21 percent of respondents approved of GOP efforts.

There's no particular reason that Republicans should care that only 11 percent of Democrats approved of the job they were doing (82 percent disapproved). But those who represent districts that are anything less than rock-solid Republican should worry that only 17 percent of independents approved and that 73 percent disapproved. Granted, the Democrats in Congress weren't much more popular among independents: Only 23 percent approved of their performance on the debt ceiling, and 66 percent disapproved. Independents were noticeably more supportive, however, of Obama's performance in the talks--37 percent approved and 52 percent disapproved.

Monday's New York Times quoted a self-identified conservative entrepreneur from Florida as saying, "They're all boneheads." It's a view that sounded familiar to me after a recent and highly unscientific survey of relatives, friends, and others at various functions on a recent trip to Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. It's like Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe's great novel (though a horrible movie) about New York City, in which virtually every character looks bad, and readers look at almost all of them with disgust.

All of this just increases the potential for the upcoming congressional election to pivot not on party but on incumbency. After kicking the daylights out of Republicans in 2006 and 2008 and then out of Democrats in 2010, it is more than a little plausible that many voters will want to kick out a bunch of incumbents from both parties next November. Putting aside the asinine public pronouncements by some Republicans, such as "reelection is the furthest thing from my mind," it's pretty clear that many GOP members of Congress are more afraid of their base than they are of independent voters. Some fear that conservative and tea party supporters will stay home.

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Charlie Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal.

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