WASHINGTON — A pair of polls out this week shows the dire state the Republican Party finds itself in — and a way out of the wilderness, should Republicans choose to take it.
Poll No. 1: Rasmussen Reports found that views of the tea party — the wing of Republicanism that dominates party primaries and therefore the congressional Republican caucuses — at a new low. Only 8 percent of likely voters considered themselves tea-party members, down from 24 percent in 2010. According to Rasmussen (which tends to have a pro-Republican bias), unfavorable views of the movement topped favorable views, 49 percent to 30 percent.
Poll No. 2: Fairleigh Dickinson University found that 73 percent of New Jersey voters approved of the job their Republican governor, Chris Christie, is doing — near his all-time high. Even 62 percent of Democrats approve of Christie, as well as 69 percent of racial minorities and 70 percent of women. The top would-be challenger to Christie in November’s gubernatorial election is trailing him by 33 percentage points.
So grim are things for the Democrats in heavily Democratic New Jersey that the state Senate president, Democrat Stephen Sweeney, apologized Monday after saying Christie wished for Hurricane Sandy to hit New Jersey. “I guess he prayed a lot and got lucky a storm came,” Sweeney had said.
Certainly, the storm — and, more important, Christie’s forceful response — boosted the governor’s standing. But the tea party’s record lows and Christie’s record highs tell a larger story: Americans are crying out for an end to ideological warfare.
That has developed into Christie’s signature in New Jersey. He began his term promising tax cuts and fighting with the teachers union over tenure, pay and education reforms, but he now preaches reconciliation — a recurring theme in his State of the State address Tuesday afternoon.
“Now, we’ve had our fights,” he told state legislators. “We have stuck to our principles. But we have established a governing model for America that shows that, even with heartfelt beliefs, bipartisan compromise is possible. … Maybe the folks in Washington, in both parties, could learn something from our record here.”
Christie, his eye on a possible 2016 presidential run, overstates that record, both in terms of economic progress and in terms of partisan cooperation. But his message is undoubtedly a winning one. More than three-quarters of Americans believe that politics in Washington is causing “serious harm to the United States,” according to a new Gallup poll — and they are correct to think so.
Christie lent his powerful voice to that sentiment last week when he condemned as “disgusting” the House Republicans’ decision not to take up a $60 billion Hurricane Sandy recovery bill because tea-party lawmakers considered it wasteful. “That’s why people hate Washington,” Christie said at the time, helping to force House Speaker John Boehner to reconsider.
It was just the latest of Christie’s many breaks with tea-party orthodoxy. Just before the election, his effusive praise of President Obama’s “outstanding” response to Sandy earned him condemnation from Rush Limbaugh and Rupert Murdoch.
He unnerved fiscal conservatives by saying that the hurricane recovery would probably require higher taxes, because “there’s no magic money tree.” He came out against the National Rifle Association’s plan to have gun-wielding guards in schools, saying, “You don’t want to make this an armed camp for kids.”
Earlier, after conservatives criticized his appointment of a Muslim judge, he took on these “bigots” for their “gaze of intolerance.” And on immigration, he called for an “orderly process” to legalize immigrants and he criticized those who “demagogue.”
Certainly, Christie is no liberal, but his State of the State speech was full of policy prescriptions that conservatives might label big government: “We’ve requested the federal government to pay 100 percent of the costs of the significant debris removal. … We have secured $20 million from the Federal Highway Administration. … We have worked with the Small Business Administration to secure nearly $189 million in loans.”
Christie also bragged about “implementing the toughest fertilizer law in America,” fighting insurers’ “excessive deductibles” and “investing the largest amount of state aid to education in New Jersey history.” He said “both Republicans and Democrats” would make sure the state got its full federal payout for the storm.
“You see,” he told the legislators, “some things are above politics.”
It’s a lesson that could help the national Republican Party loosen the tea party’s death grip.
Dana Milbank’s email address is email@example.com.