How Crazies Are Destroying Your Party

New poll underscores public’s mad-as-hell attitude toward Republicans and Democrats.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (C), R-OH and National Security Advisor Susan Rice listen as US President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Syria during a meeting with members of Congress at the White House in Washington, DC, September 3, 2013.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Oct. 31, 2013, 4:47 a.m.

This is what hap­pens when the two parties rul­ing Wash­ing­ton lose touch with Amer­ica and pander to their crazy-ex­treme bases: Pres­id­ent Obama’s com­pet­ency and per­son­al­ity rat­ings are nose-diving, ac­cord­ing to a new NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll; barely a sliv­er of the pub­lic thinks highly of the Re­pub­lic­an Party; and two-thirds of Amer­ic­ans want to re­place their own mem­ber of Con­gress.  

Peter Hart, a Demo­crat­ic poll­ster who con­duc­ted the sur­vey with Re­pub­lic­an Bill McIn­turff, called this a “Howard Beale mo­ment,” a ref­er­ence to the fam­ous rant from the 1976 movie Net­work.

“We’re mad as hell,” Hart said, “and we’re not go­ing to take it any­more.”

Privately, party strategists agree. On Obama, a Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive who works with the White House emailed me to say: “It’s his Ti­tan­ic mo­ment. He’s hit the ice­berg, but they keep act­ing like no wa­ter is com­ing in­to the ship.”

A GOP op­er­at­ive who also re­ques­ted an­onym­ity said that Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing on Obama­care high­lighted what’s wrong with his party. “We looked like we were beat­ing [up] the HHS sec­ret­ary,” he said of Kath­leen Se­beli­us. “Why do we have to al­ways overdo it?”

Like many oth­er party reg­u­lars, these two op­er­at­ives worry that hard­headed par­tis­ans are push­ing both the GOP and Demo­crat­ic Party away from the polit­ic­al cen­ter. The phe­nom­ena is play­ing out un­evenly (the GOP is ar­gu­ably more be­hold­en to its base than the Demo­crats) and for a num­ber of reas­ons, in­clud­ing hy­per-re­dis­trict­ing, the demo­crat­iz­a­tion of polit­ic­al money and the po­lar­iz­a­tion of the pub­lic it­self.  

But with each self-in­flic­ted Wash­ing­ton crisis, no­tions such as an in­de­pend­ent pres­id­en­tial bid, the dis­sol­u­tion of one or both ma­jor parties, and the rise of new polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tions seem less out­rageous. The think­ing goes like this: If voters today are more em­powered than ever via tech­no­logy (con­sider the dis­rup­tion of re­tail, en­ter­tain­ment, and me­dia in­dus­tries), how long will they wait be­fore blow­ing up the two-party sys­tem?

The the­ory plays out three ways in the NBC/WSJ poll:

1) Re­pub­lic­ans are blamed more than Demo­crats for this month’s shut­down, and are gen­er­ally held in the low­est es­teem. Their or­gan­iz­ing prin­ciple seems to be ob­struc­tion, even de­struc­tion, of the polit­ic­al sys­tem. The party is split between es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans and a no-com­prom­ise tea party.

  • Only 22 per­cent see the GOP in a pos­it­ive light, the low­est rat­ing re­cor­ded by NBC/WSJ, one of the most re­spec­ted polls in polit­ics.
  • Thirty-eight per­cent of Amer­ic­ans blame Re­pub­lic­ans for the shut­down, com­pared with 23 per­cent who blame Obama and 36 per­cent equally angry at both sides.
  • Only 17 per­cent of the pub­lic has a pos­it­ive view of House Speak­er John Boehner, the highest-rank­ing GOP elec­ted of­fi­cial. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ing is just 11 per­cent.

2) Obama fares bet­ter than Re­pub­lic­ans, but his second term is en­ter­ing a danger zone fa­mil­i­ar to Pres­id­ent George W. Bush. At some point, voters stopped trust­ing Bush and es­sen­tially stopped listen­ing to him. While Obama has a bet­ter handle on his base than GOP lead­ers, he is overly in­su­lated by it. The pres­id­ent and his ad­visers rarely listen to ad­vice bey­ond the self-ful­filling kind. Rather than change the cul­ture of Wash­ing­ton as prom­ised, Obama is a cap­tive of it—in part be­cause his lib­er­al loy­al­ists have con­vinced him that that the mes­sage he rode to power was a lie. They help to des­troy his au­da­city to hope for change.

  • Just 42 per­cent of the pub­lic ap­proves of Obama’s per­form­ance, the low­est re­cor­ded by NBC/WSJ.
  • Likab­il­ity has long been Obama’s strength, but now few­er people view him fa­vor­ably (41 per­cent) than un­fa­vor­ably (45 per­cent).
  • Only 37 per­cent of the pub­lic con­siders Obama­care a good idea, versus 47 per­cent who see it as a bad idea.

The poll­sters at­trib­ute the dra­mat­ic de­cline to a series of set­backs, in­clud­ing the NSA spy­ing scan­dal, Syr­ia’s use of chem­ic­al weapons, the gov­ern­ment shut­down, and the failed Obama­care rol­lout. In each case, the pres­id­ent stumbled and dis­sembled.

3) Par­tis­ans in both parties will nev­er ad­mit it, but the pub­lic is put­ting a pox on both houses.

  • 74 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve Con­gress is con­trib­ut­ing to prob­lems in Wash­ing­ton rather than solv­ing them.
  • Only 22 per­cent think the na­tion is headed in the right dir­ec­tion. Two-thirds be­lieve that the na­tion is in a “state of de­cline.”
  • Just two of every 10 Amer­ic­ans think the eco­nomy will get bet­ter in the next year.
  • Only three of 10 Amer­ic­ans are op­tim­ist­ic about the fu­ture of the U.S. polit­ic­al sys­tem.
  • A ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans don’t identi­fy with either party.