The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll – the one that showed the Republicans with big edges in preference among likely voters – is a warning flag for the GOP. (Of note, it was NBC’s Today show, thanks to Chuck Todd, who hit on this issue this morning. As much as I’ve bashed them, you have to give credit where credit is due.)
Most media outlets are pointing out the big advantages Republicans enjoy. Voters are saying they would prefer Republicans in charge of Congress, they don’t much care for Nancy Pelosi, and they don’t buy the argument that the incoming class would hearken back to the days of Dubya. But buried in most of the coverage is a potential looming problem: differences in opinion among voters about what their votes mean.
Check out the bottom of page 12 of the poll results. Republicans and self-identified Tea Partiers are thinking about this election as a chance to reign in the federal government to its constitutionally defined boundaries; independents are more concerned with jobs and the economy. The Ackbarian trap here lies in how Republicans craft their messages once the business of campaigning turns into the business of governing.
Those two items – sticking to the Constitution and helping the economy – are not mutually exclusive, but the response to this question does indicate a differing value system. The easy strategy is to pay attention to which audience is receiving certain communications and tailor messages accordingly; as is often the case, the easy strategy is not the best.
The simple fact is that basing policy solely on a 225-year-old piece of paper doesn’t do anything to translate to an independent voter how that policy will help him or her or the country as a whole. Frankly, the argument sounds like a crutch. (“Look, it would be nice to give everyone, but this document – which actually said buying people like you would buy cattle was ok until 1808 – says we can’t do it. Sorry!”) However, despite the media intimations to the contrary, the idea that our government has gone well beyond the limits that were set out for it – and that doing so has actually caused more problems than it has solved – is quite an intellectual conclusion, and suggests that these are pretty savvy political observers. These activists will support Constitutional policies without someone spelling out why those policies are constitutional.
Unfortunately, politicians seem to have trouble understanding that keeping a base engaged need not be pandering, and engaging the political center needn’t involve moderating one’s beliefs. Through that cynical view, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll seems to forecast Republican political gains tomorrow followed by confusion on messaging over policy priorities in 2011. (That also cuts out an interesting role for tea party activists as the conscience of the Republican party.)
To sell their economic policies on November 3 and beyond, the GOP will have to get smart on talking to the center from the right. That they have been able to do so successfully in the past year speaks to their probable success in 2010; how well they do so in the next year will decide their success in 2012.