Crook: Democrats too dumb to exploit tea party insanity
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 5 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.
Or think of states' rights. This is a politically divided country, with big divisions running along geographical lines. An arrangement that circumscribes the federal government's role, leaving as much as feasible to be decided by states -- an arrangement like the one envisaged in the Constitution -- has much to be said for it. Obama could speak up for that idea, but doesn't. He could acknowledge, and perhaps even believe, that the burden of proof lies with those who propose expanding federal powers, but doesn't. It's worse than that: You cannot say "states' rights" to many Democrats without being accused of racism.
There's another theory to account for the mildness of the backlash against the Republicans' irresponsibility -- and this rival explanation, much favored by their critics, is actually a big part of the Democrats' problem. It's the idea that voters are just so stupid. One of the things that strikes me as a foreigner living in the U.S. is that American metropolitan liberals despise every kind of bigotry, except the kind directed at the dumb hicks who inhabit the middle of the country. I mean, those people vote Republican! Trust me, the kind of naked class prejudice that is no longer acceptable in polite U.K. society is rife in Washington and other redoubts of American liberal condescension -- and the flyover people know it. Nobody likes to be talked down to, Americans least of all. If Democrats could bring themselves to respect the people they say they want to help, the Republican Party would be in deep trouble. On this, the tea party has no cause for concern.
Who's stupid? The electorate for thinking it needs reckless irresponsible Republicans to keep Obama and the Democrats in check? Or Democrats, for proving at every opportunity that that view is correct?
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.