Politics of Dysfunction

 The Politics of Dysfunction

Unless you’re a late night TV comedian – or a pundit in search of a talk show – you’re probably pretty sick of dysfunctional government. Well, that’s too bad. Atmospherics may mislead us, but numbers don’t lie. And the numbers tell us that none of this is going away anytime soon.

Let’s face it. By all rights, President Obama should be on the ropes after a series of second-term troubles. Hot-button initiatives like Immigration Reform and Gun Control have all but fizzled out. The President’s red line in Syria nearly became a self-inflicted foreign policy disaster. And through it all, a string of nagging “scandals” – Benghazi, NSA Snooping and the IRS targeting of political opponents – disrupted and distracted the work of the Administration.

So we’ve got a President careening toward lame-duckness, losing momentum at home and respect abroad. A perfect “goodbye legacy” scenario, right?

Well, no, not exactly …

It might have worked out that way. Republicans could have opted to simply sit back and watch Obamacare implode. The launch of the Affordable Care Act alone has been, in the words of observers on both sides, a “train wreck”. But congressional Republicans couldn’t let it go at that. They decided to shut down the government instead, focusing the glare of the 24-hour news cycle directly on themselves.. Coverage of the ACA was relegated to the comfortable obscurity of the back pages.

We all know how it has turned out. The media says the war is over and has proclaimed the President victorious. The Tea Party is doomed. Voters are ready to exact a terrible electoral vengeance for a Republican party so out of touch with the average American.


Haven’t we been here before?

Remember Election Night 2012? An exuberant President Obama gushed, full of grand ideas and promises of major accomplishments for his second term. Republicans leaders, collective heads in hands, sought out dark and lonely corners to ponder their impending irrelevance.

It was gripping political theater – and a great work of fiction.

The actual outcome has been quite different. The President will be lucky to get any of his agenda through Congress. Meanwhile, the Republican Party should remain a decisive force in Washington for at least the next seven years.


Yes, the President and his party did win the Battle of 2012 in an electoral landslide. But it was a pyrrhic victory. They had already lost the war.

The decisive action occurred two years earlier. The Campaign of 2010 amounted to trench warfare across fifty states. The Democrats didn’t put up much of a fight, and they lost badly. The pundits focused on the House of Representatives where the GOP had grabbed control. That was the headline. But it was not the story.

The real damage to Democrats was inflicted on the local level, and it was horrific. When the smoke of Election Day 2010 cleared, the Republicans held 53 percent of all state legislative seats in the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a non-partisan group that keeps track of these things, Republicans hadn’t done that well since 1928. The GOP also gobbled up 54 of the 99 state legislative chambers, a level not seen since the days of Harry Truman.

If the results were bad, the timing was worse. 2010 was a census year, a year when elected leaders redraw political maps. In 2010 the Republicans wielded the red pencil, and they wielded it with a fury. The GOP ended up with unilateral control of more than 190 Congressional districts.

Part of the problem for Democrats was money – or more to the point, the willingness to spend it. According to Politico, while the President put up about a billion dollars to get re-elected, his party couldn’t find the $20-$30 million needed to hold off local Republicans in 2010. As one Democratic fundraiser told the editors, “we could never get our donors to give a damn about the states.” Bet they regret that now.

Before the government shutdown, both David Jarman, writing in Daily Kos, and Nate Silver in the New York Times agreed that – barring something huge and unforeseen – the House will remain in Republican hands in 2014. The only threat most Republicans face will come from their own party.

So has anything changed since the shutdown? Probably not much.

Pollsters may quibble about the exact numbers, but the challenge facing Democrats is clear. To get the 218 seats necessary to control the House, they have to run the table. They must win every one of the 192 seats now considered “safe” or “leaning” Democrat. They must win every one of the ten seats currently considered “toss-ups”. They must win all of the dozen or so seats that now “lean” Republican. They must pick up a third of the 15 seats now considered “likely” Republican.

And they have to do it in a midterm election, when the party occupying the White House traditionally loses ground – and with a President whose approval rating has fallen well below 50%.

If the election were held tomorrow, who knows? There’s a lot of unhappiness out there at the moment.
But the vote is more than a year away. True, Democrats won’t let the electorate forget the shutdown. But the Republicans will keep reminding voters about Benghazi, the IRS, the NSA and Syria. The furor should mellow with time, especially after a full year to weigh the merits and costs of Obamacare.

The redrawing of congressional districts has no effect on the Presidential race. Given that current Republican tactics do not seem to play well with a national electorate, there is every reason to believe a Democrat will win the White House in 2016. That would give us an ideologically divided – and dysfunctional – government until at least 2020.

For those who write political satire or deliver late night monologues, the good times should just keep on rolling.

Written By: Mike Clancy