Asymmetrical War

Fallows linked to this piece from an ex-GOP staffer last week. He's been updating the conversation over the past few days. I thought this part deserved some emphasis:

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner. 

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard." This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s -- a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn ("Government is the problem," declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

That distrust in government will always hurt Democrats significantly more than it will hurt Republicans. When an influential swath of one party already is cynical about government,and the other party really believes in government, something like the debt crisis only serves to bolster the cynical party's point. It doesn't much matter that the Tea Party is less popular. If you believe "government is the problem," you've effectively demonstrated your point.

To the extent that there's liberal discomfort with Obama, I think a great deal of it emanates from the sense that he fails to understand the ruthlessness of his opposition. So back in December, liberals hear Obama say something like this:

"Here's my expectation," he said, moments after comparing the Republican negotiating strategy to terrorists who shoot hostages, "and I'll take John Boehner at his word. Nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse, that that would not be a good thing to happen.... Once John Boehner is sworn in as speaker, then he's going to have responsibilities to govern. You can't just stand on the sidelines and be a bomb thrower."

And we wonder what portion of "Government is the problem" he failed to understand. What evidence was there that "nobody"  would be willing to see the "faith and credit of the United States government collapse?" On the contrary, we found that they gladly would risk collapse. Collapse isn't a pox on both houses. It's a pox on government, and the party that defends government. Moreover, it's a boon for cynicism. The present GOP would surely risk collapse. And they'll do it again. Mitch McConnell has already said as much:

"I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting," he said. "Most of us didn't think that. What we did learn is this -- it's a hostage that's worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done."
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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