By Mark Shields
The numbers for the Republican Party are beyond discouraging. The Grand Old Party is hemorrhaging support.
In the most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey, only 24 percent of voters, an all-time low in the poll's history, now have a favorable view of the Republican Party. The public blames Republicans more than they do President Obama, 53-31 percent, for the shutdown of the federal government. In last week's Gallup poll, just 28 percent of voters -- a 10-point drop since September -- favorably viewed the GOP. This is the lowest favorable number that either political party has registered in the 21 years Gallup has been asking the question. Seventy percent in the Washington Post-ABC News poll, one week into the government shutdown, disapprove of congressional Republicans.
Democrats whose own favorable and unfavorable numbers -- 39-40 percent in a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll and 43-49 percent in the Gallup -- are nothing to write home about, yet Democrats are barely able to conceal their glee. It's not that voters are smitten with the Democrats; they most definitely are not. It's just that compared to the historically unpopular GOP, the Typhoid Mary of American politics, Democrats don't look nearly as bad. It's a little bit like winning a humility competition against Donald Trump and Kanye West.
But before Democrats start popping their chilled champagne in anticipation of their inevitable comeback in the election of 2014, they should understand that the government shutdown, coupled with the very public game of chicken over the nation's debt ceiling, has led to even further hemorrhaging of voters' already shrunken confidence in Washington and the public sector. Democrats historically have believed and argued that the federal government, at its best, can be an instrument of social justice and economic progress. Republicans, by contrast, have mostly been the anti-government party.
This was not always the case. In the middle of the Civil War, in which more Americans died than in all of the nation's other wars combined, Justin Morrill, a Republican congressman from Vermont, wrote the Land Grant College Act, which the Congress passed and President Abraham Lincoln signed into law. It mandated the federal government to give every state 30,000 acres of land for each U.S. representative that a state had in Congress. The land was used to establish federal funding for every state to found at least one public college accessible to all. The first college built under the Act was MIT, the second Cornell and it has gone on to include 215 public colleges and universities.
In 1862, not even 1 percent of the U.S. population had set foot on a college campus when, brimming with confidence and optimism, Americans dared to establish a national university system, which would become the envy of the world. Given today's pervasive pessimism and mistrust in government, it is almost impossible to believe that Americans would dare to accept Justin Morrill's challenge.
Barely fifty years ago, three out of four Americans trusted their government to do "what is right" either "just about always" or "most of the time." This year only 22 percent of us express similar levels of trust in the public sector. Optimism is the parent of confidence and trust is confidence's offspring. We now have an acute national deficit of all three crucial characteristics.
The Republican Party brand is deep in the cellar; make no mistake about it. But bad news for the GOP is not good news for Democrats as long as Americans continue to lose confidence in our capacity to act collectively, through our freely elected government, for the common good. It's time to put the champagne back on ice.