Friday, December 27, 2013

Year in Review 2013

"We're not going to be disrespected.  We have to get something out of this, and I don't know what that even is."
GOP Representative Marlin Stutzman, during the 16-day government shutdown

Washington is unanimous: Barack Obama had the worst year of any president since 1963.  Things are so bad for him that even political obituaries seem inadequate.  The press was more bullish on Nixon in their 1973 year-end reviews.  And the Republicans?  A little tarnished, maybe, but ultimately triumphant and looking great heading into a midterm year.  When even NPR got into the act this morning, I felt it was the first time to take to the blog in four and a half years. 

The year was pretty bad by most standards.  The sequester limited the economy's recovery and year-end fanaticism cut unemployment to more than a million Americans.  The US has locked itself into cultural and political trench warfare and Americans hate Washington more than any time since the 1860s.  On the other hand, the Red Sox did win the World Series.  But in BuzzFeed-world, no one is interested in actual events.  It is politics that matter, and so we place our attention there.  And here is a reset with, I assert, a more accurate reading of the actual politics.

The Year for Obama and the Democrats
It wasn't a great year for anyone.  Almost nothing got done, which meant we're left to pick over very few bones.  In the middle-future, 2013 will be remembered mainly for the Snowden leaks, which probably had a greater effect on national policy than we realize.  Politically, they were smaller potatoes.  The blame doesn't fall neatly on either party, and the details were complex enough that they didn't sink into the national conversation--likesay the way the failure of the ACA's website did.  In the short term, this is how people will remember 2013, and it is the lens through which the entire year is now, in our ADHD mediascape, being interpreted.  But so far as anyone can tell, it was only the website that failed, not the law.  And the website is by most accounts now humming along pretty well.  Five years from now, will that same ADHD media be laser-focused on a government website?  (As a thought experiment, think back to the amount of new you heard about Iraq once we quit the place.)

Meanwhile, there were a few bright spots.  It was a banner year for gay rights.  Again, this is one of those stories that will have a much deeper impact as the months roll on.  States like Oregon are busily preparing to roll back their retrograde gay marriage bans, and the Feds are firmly out of the business of discrimination.

Although he badly mishandled Syria, the result was a rogue nation agreeing to dismantle its chemical weapons.  The US brokered and initial deal with Iran.  And Secretary of State John Kerry, working quietly behind the scenes, has put Israeli-Palestinian talks back on the front burner.

We had elections in November and they showed that despite Obamacare's horrible polling, Dems could still win in purple states like Virginia.  There are signs of a resurgent liberal wing, not just in the election of Bill DeBlasio.  Elizabeth Warren is getting a lot of attention for her economic populism and there is serious talk of raising the federal minimum wage.  Meanwhile, in the Senate, our excellent junior Senator Jeff Merkley finally got his wish when Harry Reid brought a vote to curtail the filibuster for presidential nominations.  This is yet another case in which relatively small political news will result in substantial liberal gains when new judges and cabinet nominees finally get out of their logjam.  (The GOP had quietly managed to stymie portions of government they didn't like by holding up nominations to staff key leadership positions.)

Obama's horrible, no-good, terrible catastrophe of a year concluded with his approval rating rebounding from lows in the upper thirties to the lower 40s (and Pew has him as high as 45%).  That's a 28-point lead over Congress's number.  Yeah, the year was bleak and mostly sucked, but it was certainly not the Dems who got the worst of it.

The Year for the GOP
The Republican Party had a horrible year.  It concluded with the leader of the savagely divided House GOP conference ripping members of his own party.  The GOP has a 13% approval rating, and Congress, paralyzed by GOP gridlock  is at 12%.

But leave aside the in-fighting and look at the record.  The GOP succeeded in their one aim of the year--thwarting Obama.  They produced the least productive Congress in US history, passing just 55 substantive bills.  This was a feature, not a bug.  Recall that in  July, John Boehner made it explicit: "We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal."  They managed to focus on non-scandals like Benghazi and the IRS, both of which drove them further into their own bubble of Fox outrage.

The pièce de résistance, the metaphor for the party and the political moment, was, of course, the insane government shutdown.  It illustrated two things that put the lie to the "Obama's bad year" narrative.  First, it's a party with no capacity to govern.  The shutdown didn't arise over gridlock between the two parties, but over gridlock within the party.  As the pointless shutdown wandered along for 16 days, Boehner failed time after time to pass a deal his own members would agree to, finally and humiliatingly accepting the Dem's terms and using Democratic votes to pass a continuing resolution to re-start the government.  The second point should be even more disturbing for Republicans.  It's that they fooled themselves into thinking this was a winning issue.  They bombed into the shutdown with no plan, fueled only by rage and confusion, thinking that their state reflected America's.

We're about to head into an election season with these wizards at the helm of one of our two great parties.  They are, as ever, confident of victory.  They are confident they've got the right slate of purity-tested candidates and are confident that's what America wants.  They are certain that Americans feel health care is a burden and that their plan to offer nothing in exchange for Obamacare is a winning decision.  For some reason, the media seems to agree.

I guess we'll know in ten months' time.

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