Why Republicans should be very, very afraid

Why Republicans should be very, very afraid

Washington runs on hype. We live amid an almost daily onslaught of defining moments, game changers and never-before-in-human-history blather. No one has ever been banned from cable TV talk shows for overreacting to political stimuli. Skeptics are often right in the end, but, boy, are they treated like tedious killjoys along the way.

That’s why it’s tempting to play contrarian, as everyone in politics — aside from tea party true believers — is agog over polls showing support for the Republicans melting like a snowman in the Sahara.

A Thursday NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll found the GOP’s approval rating down to (gulp) 24 percent. This came on the heels of an Associated Press/GfK poll that revealed the thumbs-up verdict on Congress (5 percent) is only slightly higher than the survey’s margin of error (3.4 percentage points). Small wonder that the liberal New Republic headlined a Friday article, “The Last Days of the GOP.”

Irrational exuberance can be as misleading in political soothsaying as it is on Wall Street. Polling analyst Nate Silver may have had a valid point when he wrote, “The media is probably overstating the magnitude of the [government] shutdown’s political impact.” It is also worth remembering that after two of the biggest presidential defeats in modern history (Barry Goldwater for the Republicans in 1964 and Democrat George McGovern in 1972), the loser’s political party rebounded to win the White House four years later.

But despite all those cautionary notes, there is a strong justification for a cry of, “This time it’s different.”

With the government shutdown and the dancing-on-the-edge-of-a-volcano gamesmanship over the debt ceiling, Americans rightly believe that things have become unmoored in Washington. A Gallup Poll, released on Friday, found that 60 percent of those surveyed believe a third party is needed. More ominously for both Democrats and Republicans, only 26 percent of those surveyed believe the two main parties are doing “an adequate job of representing the American people.”

Imagining a vibrant third party is a political fantasy that ranks right up there with a deadlocked national convention going to a ninth ballot. But two decades ago, there was the out-of-nowhere emergence of Ross Perot. Before Perot became known for his paranoid claims and his bizarre (and temporary) withdrawal during the 1992 Democratic Convention, he touched off an outsider populist movement with a centrist cut-the-national-debt ideology.

Indeed, the NBC News/WSJ poll asked whether voters would be willing to check a box on the ballot that would defeat everyone in Congress, including their own representatives. Sixty percent of those surveyed were willing to play 52-card pickup and start all over again with 535 new members of Congress.

For all the built-in advantages that should favor the Republicans in 2014 (from gerrrymandered one-party House districts to a daunting Senate map for the Democrats), I have yet to find a GOP strategist totally convinced that the party will hold its House majority. In similar fashion, Democratic consultants talk nervously about “the funky atmosphere” among the voters who soundly re-elected President Barack Obama less than a year ago.

Two factors could acerbate voter frustration with two-party politics as usual.

A strain of self-righteousness and stubbornness could prompt the president to overplay his hand during the government shutdown by refusing to accept the GOP’s eventual terms of capitulation. Just because the voters are rapidly losing patience with the Republicans does not automatically make Obama a winner. Sometimes politics can be a lose-lose game.

But the more likely outcome is that, even in defeat, the tea party wing of the Republican Party will draw the wrong lessons from its repudiation by a lopsided majority of voters. Instead of recognizing that House Republicans went too far in their implacable and implausible demands to defund Obamacare, the right wing of the GOP may perversely conclude that its congressional leaders hoisted the white flag too soon. The NBC News/WSJ poll picks up this split: 72 percent of tea party backers approve the scorched-earth tactics of the congressional GOP, while only 42 percent of non-tea-party Republicans hold similar views.

Not too long ago it would have been easy to predict that the 2014 elections would be a referendum on the rollout of Obamacare. Today, a better guess would be that the health care law will prove to be one of those partisan issues in which supporters and critics cancel each other out. There will be the inevitable clash of testimonial ads: Democrats will favor weepy spots featuring Americans getting health insurance for the first time, while Republicans will go with small-business owners wailing about how Obamacare forced them to cut jobs. And most voters will wisely hit the mute button.

What this suggests is that the after-effects from the government shutdown and the debt ceiling dance of doom are apt to become the dominant voting issues of 2014. That is why, despite the down-with-all-incumbents mood among the voters, Republicans are disproportionately at risk. Voters are accurately blaming the Republicans for the government shutdown — and that stigma will be hard to escape.

It is telling, in the NBC/WSJ poll, that 65 percent of voters think the government shutdown is hurting the economy and 63 percent describe a failure to approve a debt ceiling bill as “a serious problem.” These are memories that are not going to be erased with a handshake deal at the White House and the reopening of the national parks.

What has been happening, in effect, is that the Republicans have been re-enacting the centennial of World War I a year early.

In 1914, cheering throngs all over Europe sent their boys off to war confident that victory could be achieved in a few months with limited casualties. Instead, for the next four years, armies on both sides endured horrible death tolls in the trenches of France. And, increasingly, soldiers found it impossible to recall what they were fighting for.

So it was when the House Republicans shut down the government confident that they could win major concessions from the White House in a few days. Now they are hunkered down in the trenches, with public opinion turning against them, desperate for any rationale to abandon the battlefield. But they cannot simply surrender because … well … that would mean that they have been bleeding in the polls for nothing. Rarely has a political party lost so much so rapidly from a series of strategic blunders. So, for a change, I believe the hype. Republicans will need a long time to recover from their biggest Capitol Hill debacle in memory.