GOP Doesn’t Want to Govern and Democrats Can’t

Both parties bloody their brands with 3 weeks of dysfunction.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 17: The early morning sun begins to rise behind the U.S. Capitol on December 17, 2010 in Washington, DC. Later today the Senate is slated to debate the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Oct. 25, 2013, 8:15 a.m.

In the broad­est pos­sible sense, this is what happened in “This Town” this month:

Re­pub­lic­ans un­der­cut the eco­nomy and dam­aged their brand. Amer­ic­ans jus­ti­fi­ably blamed the Re­pub­lic­an Party for the debt-ceil­ing fight and gov­ern­ment shut­down, which Stand­ard & Poors said cost the eco­nomy about $24 bil­lion. The de­bacle af­fected the pub­lic’s over­all opin­ion of Re­pub­lic­ans: Only 32 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans say they have a fa­vor­able im­pres­sion of the GOP, ac­cord­ing to a Wash­ing­ton Post poll, com­pared to 46 per­cent for the Demo­crat­ic Party.

Bey­ond the mo­ment, the brinks­man­ship cut against a core Re­pub­lic­an mis­sion: To min­im­ize the im­port­ance of gov­ern­ment.  While most Amer­ic­ans were not af­fected by shuttered fed­er­al of­fices, pub­lic parks, re­search pro­jects and com­munity pro­grams, they were re­minded of why gov­ern­ment mat­ters. They might even ap­pre­ci­ate it a bit more.

A second brand­ing prob­lem: Re­pub­lic­ans bill them­selves as the fisc­ally re­spons­ible gov­ern­ing co­ali­tion. That’s a hard claim to make when a mus­cu­lar minor­ity of your party wants to de­fault on the na­tion’s debt.

Demo­crats un­der­cut their goal of uni­ver­sal health care cov­er­age and dam­aged their brand. After dec­ades of ad­voc­at­ing for health care re­form, the Demo­crat­ic Party seems in­cap­able so far of im­ple­ment­ing it. An on­line fed­er­al mar­ket­place (for people liv­ing in states that did not cre­ate their own health in­sur­ance pools) launched Oct. 1, and it’s a bust. Obama and his team are try­ing to de­flect re­spons­ib­il­ity by blam­ing oth­ers (web­site de­velopers, the me­dia, the GOP etc.) and min­im­iz­ing the dam­age. Their re­frain: “Obama­care is more than just a web­site.” But even journ­al­ists sym­path­et­ic to Obama, such as Ezra Klein of the Wash­ing­ton Post, un­der­stand that the web­site is cru­cial to the law’s suc­cess and must be fixed.

Launch­ing a web­site is the easy part. Demo­crats still must con­vince young Amer­ic­ans to buy health in­sur­ance they don’t think they need — and deal with blow­back from count­less Amer­ic­ans who will pay more and get less in the new mar­ket­place.

If Re­pub­lic­ans helped Amer­ic­ans ap­pre­ci­ate gov­ern­ment, Obama­care is caus­ing Amer­ic­ans to ques­tion it. The dec­ades-old core ar­gu­ment of the Demo­crat­ic Party is that gov­ern­ment can do good things ef­fi­ciently. Botch­ing health care re­form would be a ma­jor set­back to that brand.  

NBC News’ “First Read” summed up the situ­ation this way: “The Obama White House and Demo­crats have a polit­ic­al prob­lem when it comes to gov­ern­ing (see the Obama­care web­site), while Re­pub­lic­ans have a polit­ic­al prob­lem be­cause they don’t want to gov­ern (see the shut­down). And both sides have used the oth­er party’s prob­lems to mask their own.”

Voters, mean­while, are turn­ing against both parties. The pub­lic’s faith in Con­gress, the pres­id­ency and vir­tu­ally every polit­ic­al in­sti­tu­tion is at near-re­cord lows. Sixty-per­cent of Amer­ic­ans want every mem­ber of Con­gress tossed from of­fice. More people dis­ap­prove of Obama’s per­form­ance than ap­prove.

There is no reas­on for Amer­ic­ans to think the GOP will de­cide to gov­ern, or that Demo­crats will learn to gov­ern well.

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