The Beginning of the End for Washington
This impasse could be the breaking point for a political system that has gone from dysfunctional to nonfunctioning.
Step back. Try for a moment to extrapolate what a government shutdown and discredited U.S. currency could do to the economy and the public's faith in government. Think beyond next year's congressional elections or even the 2016 presidential race. Factor in existing demographic and social trends. I did, and this is what I concluded:
1. The Republican Party is marginalizing itself to the brink of extinction.
2. President Obama can't capitulate to GOP demands to unwind the fairly legislated and litigated Affordable Care Act. To do so would be political malpractice and a poor precedent for future presidents.
3. Despite the prior two points, Obama and his party won't escape voters' wrath. Democrats are less at fault but not blameless.
4. This may be the beginning of the end of Washington as we know it. A rising generation of pragmatic, non-ideological voters is appalled by the dysfunctional leadership of their parents and grandparents. History may consider October 2013 their breaking point. There will come a time when Millennials aren't just mad as hell; they won't take it anymore.
The Republican Party may be splitting apart. The divide is between conservatives who want to limit government and extremists who oppose governing.
The latter sect is represented by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas who is misleading his supporters. He knows that the GOP can't overturn Obamacare because Republicans only control one half of one branch of government. And yet, Cruz and other tea party Republicans pledge to do the impossible, presumably to build email lists, bank accounts, and fame.
On the other side of the GOP divide are conservatives who were already worried about the future of their party. Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a campaign savvy conservative, wants the GOP focused on refurbishing its image rather than conducting kamikaze missions. "Let's go win some elections," Cole tells GOP voters. Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative by any sane measure, said on MSNBC last week, "I'm now no longer conservative according to the standards that have been set by the expectations of this process."
Just one in four Americans say they believe Republicans in Congress are working with Obama, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. Three-quarters of independents say the GOP is not attempting to find common ground. More than seven of every 10 voters disapprove of the way Republican lawmakers are doing their job. In general, polls show, the GOP is considered to favor the rich. On immigration and many other issues, the predominately white GOP is out of step with a rising-minority nation.
Shutting down the government and threatening the nation's credit can only hurt the Republican Party's branding crisis. The party could close ranks for the 2014 and 2016 elections, but it's hard to see how it continues to exist without fundamental changes. That's not just my opinion. It was the conclusion of the so-called autopsy ordered by GOP Chairman Reince Preibus after the 2012 election. "There's no one solution," he said. "There's a long list of them."
The strange thing is that Obamacare could be a good issue for the GOP. It is an unpopular law freighted with complexity. Successful implementation requires precision from an Obama team that has proved itself weak on the nitty-gritty of governing. One could argue that the GOP is fighting Obamacare at its peak strength "“ prior to implementation. Why not wait for it to go into effect, seize on the flaws and, as Cole says, win some elections?
Obama can't and won't gut his bill. Even if you set aside his politics, capitulation would set a horrible precedent: The nation's credit and the government itself cannot be taken hostage by the extreme wing of a minority party.
At the risk of being accused of "false equivalency" I need to state the obvious: Obama and his party won't emerge from a shutdown or debt crisis unscathed. To suggest otherwise is a false purity. For starters, the president of the United States is the living symbol of our government and thus receives undue credit when things are going well and outsized blame when they're not.
Second, voters want Obama to work with Republicans "“ or at least try. The president is seen by just half of Americans as trying to work with GOP lawmakers, according to the New York Times/CBS News poll. That is down from six of 10 Americans who said the same thing in January 2012 and three-quarters who said he would work with Republicans in 2010 and 2011.
Remember the central promise of Obama's presidency: He will change the culture of Washington. What happened? Obama has not only been taken hostage by the worst of Washington, gridlock and pettiness, but he seems to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome. His criticism of the GOP last week was as petulant as any GOP talking point. While announcing historic negotiations with Iran, a regime that sponsors terrorism, Obama said he wouldn't bargain with the GOP.
Reaching out to rivals doesn't mean capitulating on Obamacare. It does mean swallowing his pride, listening and helping the GOP find a way out of the box they've built for themselves. If this was merely a leadership pageant, Obama would win by default because House Speaker John Boehner is performing so poorly. But it's not. It's about the country that Obama leads, and everybody gets hurt when he cloisters himself off from the dirty process.
Obama's job approval numbers are already slipping. For the first time in months, more voters disapprove of his performance than approve. Two-thirds of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. The "wrong track" metric is one that often tracks the president's popularity. A government cataclysm this month will heighten voters' anxiety and Obama's jeopardy.
The salt in voters' wounds is that this fight does not directly address their biggest issue, jobs. It also not about the nation's long-term, entitlement-fed debt, an existential issue both parties stopped trying to solve.
Where does all this lead beyond the next election cycle or two? Nobody knows, but the best place to look for answers is within the Millennial Generation, the nation's rising leaders and voters. Last month, in a lengthy essay on Millennials [ The Outsiders: How Can Millennials Change Washington If They Hate It?], I concluded that their revolutionary view of government and politics points toward two possible outcomes. One is that they might opt out of Washington, which leads us to some dark places. The second and more likely outcome is they will blow up Washington ("disruption" is the tech-inspired term they use), and build something better outside the current two-party dysfunction.
Millennials don't fit neatly into either the Democratic or Republican parties. They are highly empowered, impatient, and disgusted with politics today.
"This tension "“ two parties thinking they are in the trenches dueling it out, and a burgeoning generation who reject trench warfare altogether "“ is, for me, the key," said Michelle Diggles a senior policy adviser at the Democratic think-tank Third Way and an expert in demographics and generational politics. "Washington doesn't get that change isn't just a slogan. It's about to become a reality,"
"Neither party," she said, "gets what's coming down the pike."
What happens in Washington this month might make a Millennial Revolution all the more likely.