The government is closed.
There’s really no better way to illustrate the pervasive dysfunction that for years now has gripped Washington. After years of shutdown threats, debt-ceiling standoffs, filibusters, dead-end legislation, and endless posturing — on the floor, on cable news, on talk radio, on Twitter — both sides have succeeded, finally, in bringing things to a crashing halt.
And for many, both in this town and outside of it, the persistent, polarized environment is accepted with a shrug.
But it wasn’t always this way. And it didn’t just happen. A handful of Washington players bear inordinate responsibility for the state we’re in. We’ve asked eight National Journal writers to name names — to identify the people who broke Washington. This week, we’re posting the results. Disagree with the choices? Nominate your own here.
During his five years in office, President Obama has often blamed his problems on what George W. Bush left him with: two wars, a historic recession, an out-of-control financial system and a huge budget deficit. But W.’s most enduring legacy to his successor may have been the tea party movement, and the political dysfunction that it has brought.
That may seem an odd conclusion. Today Obama is the central villain in tea-party rhetoric, and Bush is hardly ever mentioned. Yet the rebellion against Big Government that the tea party has come to embody really began more than a decade ago with a growing sense of betrayal among conservatives over Bush’s runaway-spending habits. Conservatives were angered by his refusal to veto any spending bills, especially in his first term, not to mention what happened during the nearly six years of GOP control of the Senate and House from 2000 to ‘06, when federal spending grew to a record $2.7 trillion, more than doubling the increase during Bill Clinton’s two terms. The final outrage that lit the brushfires of tea-party fervor was Bush’s sponsorship of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program in the fall of 2008, just before he left office, in order to bail out Wall Street.
It is arguably true that President Obama’s decision in 2009 to pile a giant stimulus and a new national health-care program on top of TARP transformed those brushfires into a true national conflagration — and a movement. But in reality Obama’s actions were more like a tipping point, many conservatives say. “This social and political phenomenon of the tea partiers was burning all through the Bush years,” Reid Buckley, brother of the late William F. Buckley and the self-appointed keeper of his flame as a father of modern conservatism, said in a 2010 interview. “It’s a long-term slow boil that has disaffected most people who call themselves conservatives. There’s nothing I have against President Obama that in this I wouldn’t charge Bush with.”
It wasn’t just spending of course. Bush also built the intrusive post-9/11 national-security state that Obama has embraced, and which a growing number libertarian tea partiers have come to hate, including National Security Agency surveillance and a program of frequent but secret drone strikes.
True, on many issues, Bush gained enthusiastic conservative support. Among them were his hawkish response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks; his abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol and resistance to domestic efforts to reduce the carbon emissions linked to climate change; his conservative nominees to the Supreme Court; the two large tax cuts he passed in 2001 and 2003 (the latter was the first tax cut approved during wartime in American history); and above all, his 2005 attempt to restructure Social Security, the pillar of the public social safety net, into a program that relied less on government and more on markets to deliver economic security.
Yet throughout his presidency, Bush was far more comfortable with an assertive role for Washington than many conservatives were. They recoiled from his proposals to expand the federal role in education, create a prescription-drug benefit under Medicare and establish a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
On some of these issues — especially the post-9/11 response and the war in Iraq — a sense of patriotism and party loyalty papered over growing conservative discontent with Bush’s fiscal irresponsibility and national-security recklessness. But the fissures in the party were quietly widening. Among the conservatives who cooled on Bush were some of today’s intellectual champions of the tea party, such as Jim DeMint, the former senator from South Carolina who now heads the Heritage Foundation and is a leading player in the Obamacare standoff; and Tom Coburn, the zealously fiscally conservative senator from Oklahoma. For DeMint, Bush’s TARP and stimulus in the fall of 2008 were “the last straw” in his disaffection from Bush, an aide to the senator said. “There’s a lot of affection for Bush because of how passionately he fought the war on terror. But as far as domestic policy goes, conservatives felt betrayed.” Coburn, in a speech on the Senate floor in October 2005, inveighed against the remorseless earmarking of his fellow Republicans and the spending of the Republican-controlled White House. “All change starts with a distant rumble, a rumble at the grassroots level, and if you stop and listen today, you will hear such a rumble,” he said.
Coburn spoke then of “committees full of outraged citizens” forming in the heartland. He supported the Porkbusters movement led by Glenn Reynolds, a blogger (Instapundit) and law professor from Tennessee, which resembled a dress rehearsal for the tea party movement. “It started when Republicans were in charge,” Coburn told National Journal a few years ago. He added that Bush’s “Medicare prescription drug plan — that was the worst thing imaginable, $13 trillion in unfunded liabilities.”
George W. Bush left behind many baleful legacies, among them a $3 trillion war in Iraq that didn’t need to be fought, and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. But he also helped to fracture his own party — and thus Washington.
We thought you were different, but you turned out to be like all the others. You promised hope and change, but we trust government even less than before. You offered a new brand of post-partisan governing, but the red states and blue states are farther apart than ever.
Washington was a mess when you arrived in January of 2009, but by breaking your promises and, frankly, our hearts, you made it worse.
You vowed to ban lobbyists from the White House only to sneak them in through loopholes.
You barred corporate donations to the first inauguration but let the special interest money rain down the second time around. You even learned to love super PACs.
How could you?
Hopeless and Changed (for the worse)
“The Obama brand was presented to American public as a new and unifying force in American politics, but he’s turned out to be an absolutely conventional politician,” said Republican consultant Kevin Madden, who advised Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. “He’s been very divisive.”
This week’s government shutdown represents a new low in Washington, reinforcing how little gets done and everyone hates each other. And while polls show that Republicans in Congress still get more of the blame, Americans are increasingly pointing the finger at the Oval Office.
A recent Bloomberg survey found that 40 percent blame the GOP for what’s wrong in Washington, while 38 percent blame the president and congressional Democrats. Back in February, Obama had a nine-point edge over Republicans and independents were evenly divided over who was responsible. Now, 42 percent of independents fault with Obama and his allies in Congress, while 34 percent blame Republicans on Capitol Hill.
The latest CNN poll found a similar trend, with the percentage who blame congressional Republicans for a government shutdown down five points and the percent who blame Obama up three points.
“At some point when your team is losing, you don’t blame the individual players. You blame the coach,” said Republican lobbyist Vin Weber, a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. “There’s a flaw in leadership, whether it’s because of ideology or inexperience.”
Perhaps Obama’s biggest failing has been his inability to build relationships and make deals on Capitol Hill—a shortcoming in sharp relief during the ongoing debate over a health care law that didn’t win a single Republican vote. Even Democratic members complain they get short shrift from a detached White House and that Obama’s crusade for the controversial health care law laid the groundwork for the rise of an intransigent tea party.
Longtime lobbyist Charlie Black noted that it was Vice President Joe Biden who reached a last-minute agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff at the start of this year.
“The president wasted 17 months, and in one weekend the old pros made a deal,” Black said. “All the president knows how to do is campaign and attack.”
Republicans point to a few key moments in which the president’s tone and timing inflicted damage. Only three weeks after a lofty inauguration speech, he ripped Republican critics of his economic stimulus plan at a Democratic retreat in 2009. “We’re not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that, for the last eight years, doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin,” he said. Two years later, he lit into the Republican deficit-reduction plan in a speech, as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan awkwardly sat in the front row. Last month, just a few hours after the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, the president unloaded on Republicans for failing to agree to a spending plan. “Are they really willing to hurt people just to score political points?” he demanded.
Obama’s tendency to impugn Republican motives—instead of attributing conflict to a different view of the federal government’s role or contrasting economic philosophy—has helped erode what little good will was left between the two parties when he took office.
“I was actually hopeful that somehow he would change the environment, but instead he exacerbated an already perilous situation,” said former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., chairman of the board of the American Action Network. “He offered the greatest opportunity and the greatest promise, and if you look at the distance from the promise to where we’ve descended, that says it all.”
In fairness to Obama, few Republicans were willing to give him a chance. The remark that seemed to encapsulate the GOP’s all-consuming hostility came from McConnell, who told National Journal in 2010: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Obama’s former deputy press secretary, Bill Burton, said it’s impossible to reach compromises with tea-party conservatives seeking control of the Republican Party.
“There’s a false idea that if the president spent more time playing golf with [House Speaker] John Boehner or having cocktails with [Sen.] Ted Cruz that all this animosity would be papered over,” Burton said. “There have been no willing partners.”