Folks in Congress don't agree on much these days, but there's general agreement that the GOP got the better of President Obama and the Democrats on the FAA budget sequester. Many on the left hoped that Republicans would feel a backlash from rushing to fix an issue that caused minor discomfort to the 1 percent, while leaving poor Americans who rely on programs like Head Start and Meals-On-Wheels out in the cold. That hasn't happened, and recent polling suggests that it is unlikely to happen. A Pew poll found the public equally divided on who deserves the blame for FAA budget cuts and airport delays--34 percent blame congressional Republicans while 32 percent say it is the fault of the Obama administration.
Republicans succeeded because they made the issue not one of budget priorities, but of budgeting. They moved the debate from one about cutting off funds to a critical agency to a debate about the bureaucratic red tape that made it impossible to make smart and sensible cuts. Government can do more with less is the GOP mantra. And, in airports across the country, it was proven true. At least for now.
Conceding the issue also means Democrats box themselves into explaining why they can't find a similar fix for other popular and important programs. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee and a former DCCC chairman , told the Washington Post's Greg Sargent, “We have certainly made it more difficult to stand firm going forward. But we’re going to have to reclaim some lost ground here. We cannot have a situation where people just cherry-pick the sequester.”
However, while Republicans may have won this battle, this doesn't mean that they are winning the war on economic policy. In fact, if anything, it suggests that the GOP talking points on deficit reduction need to focus less on "austerity" and more on "flexibility" and "sensibility."
There's little evidence that the sequester is popular. An ABC/Washington Post poll from mid April found that 57 percent disapproved of the "automatic across the board cuts," and 63 percent think these cuts are hurting the economy. Poll after poll also shows that the American public see fixing the job situation as a much bigger priority than tackling deficit reduction. In other words, cutting is not as popular as growing.
Moreover, Republicans continue to be seen as a party that is out of touch with average Americans. When asked if they thought the Republican Party was "in touch with the concerns of most people in the United States or is it out of touch," a whopping 70 percent of respondents in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll said they were out of touch. Compared with Republicans, twice as many--43 percent to 23 percent--thought the Democratic Party was in touch with concerns of the average American.
The GOP's FAA positioning was a victory of messaging, but not a victory for the GOP message. While the President's approval rating on the economy is underwater, there is no evidence that voters trust Republicans more to fix the struggling economy (see Romney, Mitt).
In a recent analysis, National Journal's Ron Brownstein highlighted the pathway for the GOP to gain the upper hand on the economy by exploiting the cracks in the Obama coalition. "While 54 percent of the public overall (and just 39 percent of the college white women) put that negative designation on their current economic standing, 63 percent of millennials, 67 percent of African-Americans, and 69 percent of Hispanics say they are struggling," writes Brownstein. "On issues like guns, gay marriage, and potentially immigration, congressional Republicans continue to take positions that make it difficult for all of these voters, as well as the college white women, to connect with the GOP. But if minorities and millennials remain this dissatisfied with their economic condition, Democrats will face a growing challenge to maintain through 2016 the lopsided advantages they enjoyed among them in 2012."
However, unless and until Republicans can find ways to meet these voters where they are--worried less about the deficit and more about their prospects for finding and keeping a job and maintaining a middle class lifestyle--they will miss the opportunity to peel these voters away from their current Democratic alliance.