A few years back, when George W. Bush was still president, I attended an event at the Pew Research Center, and at one point a discussion got going about the varying opinions of Democrats and Republicans about whether their respective parties stood up for their beliefs. At the time, far more Republicans than Democrats answered this question in the affirmative, and people had a variety of explanations for the result. Perhaps it was the fact that Republicans tend to be more respectful of authority, or perhaps the greater ideological and demographic diversity within the Democratic coalition had something to do with it. Feeling rather clever, I raised my hand, and said, "Maybe it's because they're both right." At the time, Republicans did indeed stand up for their beliefs, and Democrats didn't so much. After all, this was a period in which Republicans were getting pretty much everything they wanted from their president and their national party—tax cuts! Wars! Right-wing Supreme Court justices!—while Democrats were getting beaten about the head and shoulders, and responding by saying, "We're so sorry we hit your fists with our faces."
But what a difference a few years make. Pew just released their latest results on this question, and the beliefs of partisans have been reversed:
So does that mean that today the Democrats are the ones standing up for their beliefs while the Republicans are betraying their ideals? It would be hard to make that argument. Congressional Republicans have lost a couple of battles, the result of which was that things like increases in the debt ceiling happened, but it wasn't for lack of trying. And it isn't as though they've stopped working to restrict women's reproductive choices, or trying to make sure as few people as possible get health coverage, or fighting the gay menace.
No, what I think this question reflects, more than anything else, is winning and losing. When you're party is winning, you think it's doing a pretty good job standing up for its ideals, and when it's losing, particularly if you're highly ideological, you interpret that loss as evidence that it didn't stand up for its ideals. If you look at the lines, that's the arc they follow. The Republican numbers drop between 2004 and 2006, when Bush's approval took a nose dive and the Democrats took back both houses of Congress, and continue to drop through the 2008 election when they lost the White House. Then they go back up in 2010, when the Republicans took back the House. Then they fall again in 2012, when Barack Obama gets re-elected. The line for Democrats does the reverse.
I guess the message is that partisans don't give their party any credit for trying.