Analysis: Public confidence in government declining fast

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Sometimes polls state the obvious. Sometimes they surprise. The latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal and Gallup polls, which landed in the middle of the government shutdown late last week, did both.

Everyone knew that the shutdown and threats of a government default would damage the political standing of all parties in the Washington drama. That was obvious. What was surprising was the amount of damage that was done in so short a time — and especially to the Republican Party, whose tactical mistakes led to the shutdown, soon to enter its third week.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democratic pollsters Peter Hart and Fred Yang conducted the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. All are veteran practitioners, but even they seemed startled by the findings. McInturff, in an analysis, wrote, "Overall, this is among the handful of surveys that stand out in my career as being significant and consequential." Hart called the survey "jaw-dropping."

Why? It's worth ticking through some of the numbers. Pessimism about the direction of the country and the economy were up dramatically. Almost eight respondents in 10 said the country is now seriously off track, a jump of 16 points in a month. Four in 10 said they now expect the economy to get worse over the next year. McInturff said it is only the fifth time in 20 years that such pessimism about the economy has reached or exceeded 40 percent.

The current standoff is corroding public confidence in government — just as it did two years ago during the last tortured negotiation over raising the debt ceiling. Anger at the political class in Washington has risen to levels rarely seen. In the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, six in 10 — a record — said that if they could do so, they would vote to replace every member of Congress, including their own. Six in 10 also said that what is happening in Washington makes them worry more about the future of the economy.

President Barack Obama and the Democrats did not escape criticism, but the Republicans were in a different league in terms of how the public assessed blame. The shutdown has been a political debacle for the Republicans. Images of both the Republican Party and the Tea Party, whose followers in the House pressed for the strategy that led to the shutdown, registered record lows. Just 24 percent said they had a positive impression of the GOP. The Tea Party's positive rating was just 21 percent.

Fifty-three percent of all Americans blamed the Republicans for the shutdown. Only 31 percent blamed Obama. More than two in three said Republicans had put their own agenda ahead of the country's interests, while 51 percent said that of the president.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who staged a 21-hour pseudo-filibuster demanding that the Affordable Care Act be defunded as the price for keeping the government running, tried to slough off the results. He told NBC News on Friday that the poll was "not reflective of where the country is." Cruz must have missed the findings of the Gallup organization, which released numbers almost identical to those of the NBC-Wall Street Journal.

A series of headlines on the Gallup website charted the political fallout from the current impasse, which has kept the government shut for two weeks and could lead to a default by the federal government next week if the talks now underway between congressional Republicans and Democrats and White House officials do not bear fruit.

"American Satisfaction With U.S. Gov't Drops to New Low," said one Gallup release. Just 18 percent said they were satisfied with the way the country is being governed, down 14 points in a month. That 18 percent represented a new low — one point worse than at the end of the 2011 debt-ceiling debacle.

But as in the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Gallup found that the public is not assigning blame equally. The GOP fared as badly in Gallup's survey. Just 28 percent of respondents said they viewed the Republican Party favorably. In Gallup's long history, that represents a record low for either political party. The GOP's rating dropped 10 points in a month.

No one can know yet how all this will play in next year's midterm elections and certainly not in the 2016 presidential race. But Republicans cannot ignore the devastating impact this is having on their party. That's one reason some GOP senators are working now to find a way out.

One question is why virtually no one in the party stood up and publicly challenged the strategy that brought the GOP to this point. In the aftermath of all this, once the fever has broken, those who aspire to lead the Republican Party will need to do a serious stocktaking and ask the questions they failed to ask as the debacle unfolded.