Here's a mystery. The Republicans describe themselves as the party of smaller government, and the Democrats generally agree. Polls indicate nearly unprecedented lows in public trust in the federal government.
Yet the Republicans' popularity seems to sink continuously. Some pundits believe the Democrats have a shot of reversing the 2010 election upset and retaking the House.
The shutdown only hurt the GOP. The public blames the Republicans by a wide margin. In all their histrionics, they seemed utterly lost, undecided on whether to embrace the shutdown or attack Obama for it. Now they are attacking each other.
Looking at public opinion on big government, conservative talking heads conclude that Republicans simply need to walk the walk. Americans want real fiscal conservatives to represent them, rather than these sellout moderates.
And yet the tea party is also less popular than ever. Those associated with the economic far right have lost support, even as the population by and large is turning against the central state.
Here's another curiosity: The Republicans have put most of their eggs in the anti-Obamacare basket, a strategy that would seem potentially sensible. After all, for years, the majority of Americans have consistently favored repealing the law. The rollout of the website has been disastrous. Liberals are turning against it, or at least their faith is waning. And yet the GOP seems to suffer any time any of them try to do something to stop it.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration's embarrassments mount. In the last year, we've seen the government scandalized over its IRS audits and surveillance of journalists. We've seen the horrendous NSA wiretapping program exposed -- one of the greatest violations of civil liberties in U.S. history, unpopular across traditional party lines.
We've seen the president, having drawn a "red line," push for war with Syria, only to be shouted down by the people, every demographic group of which opposed the idea, except Democrats, according to some polling. Putin upstaged Obama twice in a matter of weeks, over NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's asylum and then over the peaceful resolution to Assad's chemical weapons.
Unemployment remains high. There are still more U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan than when Obama took office. Outside of defensive Democratic partisans, no one can say Obama's is a wonderful presidency.
Nevertheless, the Republicans continue to lose credibility, even when they appeal to issues with majority agreement. The public didn't want war with Syria, and neither did the tea party, but somehow conservatives managed to lose the PR battle once the war was off the table, attacking the president for appearing weak rather than simply expressing genuine gratitude that conflict was avoided.
Different factions point to social issues, insisting that the problem is too much or not enough deference to cultural conservatism. But even as Republican politicians shift on issues like gay marriage, it doesn't seem to matter much in the public's appraisal.
Perhaps some of their problem is the lingering memory of George W. Bush. The polls on overall favorability, as opposed to approval, reveal that he is still slightly less liked than Obama.
Bush and his party unleashed massive damage. The Iraq war still qualifies as the biggest big-government disaster in U.S. history since Vietnam. Under Bush, the debt increased faster than under Obama. All the while, dissidents were called unpatriotic and Bush partisans called for deporting war protesters.
Everyone knows, subconsciously at least, that the Republican Party, posing as the smaller-government coalition, is thoroughly hypocritical, that another Republican government will bring a subtly different flavor of tyranny and graft at best. People vaguely recall that the major GOP presidential candidates in 2012 all supported the core elements of Obamacare. They also recall Republicans touting America's mixed-economy in health care -- post-Medicare D, pushed through by Bush -- as the "greatest health care system in the world."
Perhaps we're seeing the withering away of modern conservatism itself. This ideology, emerging after World War II to play opposition to New Deal liberalism, is an anachronism. The combination of unapologetic nationalism, state-enforced social conservatism and cultural homogeneity, xenophobia, militarism and national-security paranoia, and unwavering open support for big business, with a nebulous commitment to constitutionally limited government and free enterprise, was always a doomed mission. Today it just seems bizarre.
Young Americans who dislike big government don't love Ronald Reagan, whose hypocrisies appear more insurmountable now that he is a relic of history rather than a fabricated persona of newsy talking points. To them, even Clinton is a murky memory, and he was the most fiscally cautious president since the Cold War. Today's youth are as likely to distrust conservatives as liberals, to fear the local police far more than foreigners.
The so-called libertarian wing of the GOP almost seems like a last gasp to reclaim the fusionist narrative that never really rang true. Whenever this faction actually sounds libertarian, half of its conservative support becomes wary. Whenever it tries to cater to traditional conservatives, the libertarians who fueled the Ron Paul Revolution lose interest or become hostile. And as uncomfortable as this coalition seems now, its members will break one way or the other when the next Republican president arises. Nothing puts the lie to small-government conservatism like a conservative in the White House.
A century and a half has passed since the last revolution in party politics. We face nothing as significant as the pre-Civil War regional splintering of the Whigs and Democrats. But it is long past time for a shake-up. Maybe the Republican Party as it's been roughly defined for three generations is on its way out. Maybe the conservative movement's days are numbered. Given public attitudes on war and domestic government, there could be a bright future ahead for the politics of shrinking the state. But perhaps the movement that has laid claim to that agenda for over sixty years, while championing shooting wars abroad and culture wars at home, will have to die out first.