From outside of Washington, the process of politics appears to be hopelessly broken. After a stunning campaign that energized a new generation of voters, the Obama administration seems as dysfunctional as any that came before it. Hope and change have turned into the same old gridlock.
From inside the Beltway, however, the origins of this political paralysis are clearer. Engineered by Republicans and enabled by Blue Dog Democrats, the plan to obstruct administration policies is expected to pay big dividends for Republicans on Tuesday.
When Barack Obama executed a nearly flawless election campaign in 2008, the Republicans–who just five years prior expected to maintain a “permanent Republican majority”–faced an existential crisis. If Obama delivered on his promises, he could become the Bobby Kennedy who lived. Camelot II could have captured the imagination of a generation of young voters. Stopping Obama’s agenda and extinguishing that spark of hope was the GOP’s only hope of long-term political survival.
Their plan took nerve, but by toughing out the short-term criticisms from political pundits, the GOP plan to obstruct virtually every administration initiative–including ones the Republicans themselves had proposed in recent years–has succeeded in making the Democrats look inept (admittedly not an insurmountable objective). While there is certainly much to criticize in Democratic strategy, the Republicans understood that only a minority of American voters actually follow the details of Washington politics enough to lay the blame where it belongs.
Most Americans see Washington as a political black box. They see the head on top of the box and they see what comes out the other end, but few follow the byzantine process by which the political sausage gets made. Many younger first-time voters thought they had changed the “head” atop the box from Bush to Obama so it should be crapping roses out the other end by now. The Republican strategy was to dash their expectations by obstructing the intestines inside the body politic.
The Republican gambit was twofold. First, they mobilized the extremists from their base to make as much noise as possible. They shouted down members of Congress in town hall meetings with accusations of “Obamacare death panels” and other wild claims that terrorized Blue Dog Democrats into siding with the GOP. Second, and more importantly, they now had enough votes in the Senate to block major aspects of Obama’s agenda. It was there that the GOP would become the sphincter of Washington and constipate the political process.
There was an inherent risk in the GOP strategy that the media might call them out and identify them as the source of the dysfunction, but unlike “American Idol” or “Dancing with the Stars,” the narrative of politics is long and complicated. Undecided swing voters–the clueless ones who after eight years of Bush policies, still didn’t know which party they supported–were unlikely to follow the arcane procedural obstacles employed by Senate Republicans. They voted for change and Democrats weren’t delivering.
While the political commentariat rightly characterized the GOP as the “party of NO,” the mainstream media did little to analyze the deliberate strategy of blockage and obstruction. Rather, they focused on the horse race aspect of politics by reporting on wins and losses. The Republicans rightly gambled that many voters–especially the new and undecided voters–would blame the head of the body rather than explore the messy and complicated guts.
The GOP has successfully created the meme that “hopey, changey” politics are dead and that electoral participation doesn’t really change anything. Many 18- to 30-year-old voters who helped bring Obama to power have become increasingly convinced that Washington will never change and that Obama represents business as usual. While there are many reasons to be cynical about Washington, those who stay home on Election Day will be enabling the ultimate act of cynicism by rewarding the Republican strategy of constipation and dysfunction. By not voting, they will be rewarding the assholes.