With the 2012 national election 16 months away, Republicans are suddenly getting anxious about its outcome and about the potential results for Florida, in particular. While the Republican tsunami in 2010 carried the party to victory in most states, helped them secure a majority of members in the U.S. House of Representatives, and enabled them to prevail in every statewide race in Florida, it is now in danger of receding.
A stagnant economy that was thought to play into their hands has not helped. Republicans at the national and state levels, like Gov. Rick Scott in Florida, have opted for massive cuts to deal with federal and state budget shortfalls, rather than pursue any increased revenue. They are finding out that these cuts have gored almost everyone's ox and, consequently, alienated all but the most loyal Republicans.
Adding to Republican difficulties, the debt ceiling crisis, which some leaders thought could be used to embarrass President Barack Obama and Democrats, has spun out of their control. Although few voters understood the debt ceiling crisis initially, most have turned against the Republican effort to hold this issue hostage to their efforts to slash federal spending.
In their rhetorical battle with Obama over spending cuts vs. increased taxes, Republicans find themselves in the unenviable position of defending tax breaks for the rich.
Embracing the rich, however, has been a political loser since the founding of this nation. Some of the nation's leading presidents — from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman — as well as many state governors have used the public's animus toward the rich to rout their political opponents.
Compounding the Republicans' stance, recent reports have shown that taxes on the rich and on corporate profits are at their lowest levels in 50 years, with many avoiding taxes altogether.
Polls taken during the past two weeks underscore the folly of the Republican position. Sixty-seven percent of voters believe that any agreement to reduce the national debt should include some combination of budget cuts and tax hikes.
Although there is a significant partisan divide on that question, Democrats support increased taxes for the wealthy and corporate profits by a lopsided margin of 87 to 7 percent and, more significantly, independents do so by a 66 to 26 percent margin. In addition, only a narrow plurality of Republican voters, 48 percent to 43 percent, supports the party's position on taxes.
These recent developments have caused some Republicans to think the unthinkable — that Obama may well win re-election of 2012. The current state of political affairs in Florida has fueled apprehension in Republican circles. Gov. Scott has the lowest approval ratings of any Florida governor since Charley Johns in the 1950s and Claude Kirk in the 1960s. Neither Johns nor Kirk won another statewide office after their term as governor.
More worrisome for national Republicans is the possibility that Scott's unpopularity will persist into 2012 (especially with the recession showing no sign of easing in Florida) and affect the outcome of the presidential election in the state. With its 27 electoral votes (up from 25 in 2008) and with its pivotal role in the outcome of every presidential election since 1996, Florida is crucial to the ambitions of both parties. In an effort to offset Scott's low ratings, the Republican Party has recently pumped thousands of dollars into Florida to help soften Scott's image and make him more appealing.
So where is all this taking the party? If it continues to champion budget reductions while also opposing tax increases for the wealthy, it runs the certain risk of being branded a sycophant for the rich, much like Harry Truman stamped Thomas Dewey in his dramatic come-from-behind victory in 1948.
With bipartisan groups unanimous in their view that only budget cuts and tax increases can address the nation's budget crisis, Republicans are holding a losing hand. They have time to rectify that, but they need some new cards.
David R. Colburn is director of the Askew Institute at the University of Florida and author of "From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans" (2007).