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In 2009, Senate Republicans filibustered a stunning 80% of major legislation, even more than during the Clinton years. GOP leader Mitch McConnell led a filibuster of a deficit-reduction commission that he himself had demanded. The Obama White House spent months trying to lure the Finance Committee's ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley, into supporting a deal on health care reform and gave his staff a major role in crafting the bill. But GOP officials back home began threatening to run a primary challenger against the Iowa Senator. By late summer, Grassley wasn't just inching away from reform; he was implying that Obamacare would euthanize Grandma.
By October, the process had dragged on for the better part of a year, and the public mood had grown bitter. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the percentage of Americans who said Obama had done a "very good" job of "achieving his goals" was less than half the level of January 2009, and significantly fewer people believed he was successfully "changing business as usual in Washington."
The Republicans have used this rising disgust with government not just to cripple health care reform but also to derail other Obama initiatives. In a memo to clients on how to defeat new regulation of Wall Street, Republican pollster Frank Luntz urged them to attack "lobbyist loopholes" items that were put into the financial-reform bill, as in the health care bill, largely to attract enough Democratic votes to break the GOP filibuster. Needing 60 votes has made the debate over every bill on Obama's agenda longer and uglier, which is exactly how the Republicans want it to be.
Last month, when the Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed Americans' views on health care reform, it found that most people still back the individual components of Obama's effort. But enthusiasm for the bill itself the contents of which remain hazy in the public mind has faded, just as in 1993. And according to a new poll by CNN/ORC, public approval of Congress stands at its lowest level since you guessed it the Gingrich era. Once again, the Republicans have told Americans that they can't trust government with their health care, and once again, their own actions have helped convince Americans that what they say is true. The circle is complete.
Breaking the Circle
In recent years, Republicans have played this style of politics better than Democrats. Winning elections by making government look foolish is a more natural strategy for the antigovernment party. But there's no guarantee Democrats won't one day try something similar. Were a Republican President and Congress to make a genuine effort to rein in entitlement spending, Democrats might act in much the same way McConnell and company are acting now. At its core, vicious-circle politics isn't an assault on liberal solutions to hard problems; it's an assault on any solutions to hard problems. It's no surprise that Democrats couldn't successfully filibuster George W. Bush's tax cuts and Republicans couldn't successfully filibuster Obama's stimulus spending. When you're handing out goodies, it's much harder for opponents to gum up the process. As Vanderbilt University's Marc Hetherington has argued, trust in government matters most when government is asking people to make sacrifices. It's when the pain is temporary but the benefits are long-term that people most need to believe that government is something other than stupid and selfish. Which is exactly what they don't believe today.
Is there a way out? In theory, if the Democrats won so overwhelmingly that they controlled nearly 70 seats in the Senate, as they did when Franklin Roosevelt secured passage of Social Security and when Lyndon Johnson got Medicare through, they could simply steamroll the GOP. But America in 2010, unlike America in 1935 or '65, is closely divided between the two parties. Although bipartisanship is not an end in and of itself, the reality remains that today, and for the foreseeable future, neither party can do big, controversial things without help from the other.
So, what might encourage the two parties to cooperate?