Even many Republicans agree that they lost the battle over the shutdown and the debt ceiling. The tea party walked the country to the edge of economic ruin and their party to the edge of political catastrophe until Republican leaders in Congress flinched. Maneuvering themselves into that defeat was an act of insane recklessness by Republicans and a political gaffe of the first order. Perhaps they’ll do it again in a few months.
Democrats, though, have little to celebrate — and I’m not talking about the shambolic rollout of the health-insurance exchanges. Republicans saw their approval numbers sink with the debt-ceiling standoff, but not nearly as badly as you might have guessed. This should be making Democrats think.
Opinion polls put them between five and 10 percentage points ahead of the Republicans, about where they were in the first few months of the year. President Barack Obama has a net disapproval rating of between five and 10 points. At the start of the year, he had a net approval rating of more than 10 points. The balance flipped to negative in the summer, and the debt-ceiling fight didn’t flip it back.
These poll numbers hardly let the tea party off the hook. If you ask me, the politicians who designed the strategy of threatening to default and the others who went along with it have shown themselves unfit to hold public office. Yet Republican leaders bowed in the end to what they saw as the prospect of certain defeat, not to an actual landslide of support for the Democrats and the president.
Why has the anti-Republican backlash, such as it is, been so mild? Here’s an obvious yet strangely neglected answer: Much of the electorate, while deploring the tea party’s nihilistic tactics, thinks the movement has a point.
News flash: Most Americans don’t share the Democratic Party’s instinctive devotion to higher taxes and a bigger federal government. An enraged and unhinged minority of voters apparently wants to see the liberal agenda attacked by any means necessary, even if it means paralyzing the government and wrecking the economy. But a far wider segment wants to see the progressive program at least questioned and held in check — and who will do that, if not the Republican Party?
The answer to that question could have been and should have been the president. Many Democrats criticize Obama for being too centrist and accommodating, but this is a false reading. True, Obama has often given ground under pressure, which has made him look weak. But when has he ever led the country to a workable compromise, rather than being led there? He’s always the reluctant centrist, never the centrist by conviction.
Think of health-care reform. The White House outsourced this enormous project (whose goals, by the way, I’m all for) to a Democratic Congress guided by the principle that “elections have consequences” — meaning, never mind the other side’s objections and the idea that a reform of this scope should have bipartisan support. Republicans did push back and Obama did make concessions, but the president was never in charge and never wanted to be.
Or think of fiscal policy. What has Obama done to advance the discussion that the country still needs on tax and entitlement reform? He appointed a presidential commission to advise on the issues and then, in effect, disowned it. All one can really say about the president’s fiscal preferences is that he thinks higher taxes on the rich and higher public spending are, other things equal, good ideas. Obama doesn’t stand for fiscal discipline; he has fiscal discipline thrust upon him.