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Sheri and Allan Rivlin Headshot

After Dual Stumbles -- A Return to Parity and Paralyses

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We saw the Republican self-inflicted wounds coming for months and then the Democrats celebrated their advantage by shooting themselves in the foot. It is difficult to say which party is now in worse shape because the problems on both sides so fundamentally challenge each side's reason for existence. Republicans squandered any claim they had to being the party of fiscal responsibility by paying hundreds of thousands of federal workers to stay home, damaging the economy and worse. Now the pro-business wing of the GOP is waking up to the fact that the insurgent wing may hold a reckless disregard for what is in the best interests of the "job creators." On the other side, the party that believes government can do more to make people's lives better fumbled the debut of the most ambitious new government program in memory. Now both sides would rather talk about the other side's problems than squarely face their own.

After the government shut down, the Republicans are forming battle lines for a full on Civil War between the establishment pro-business conservatives and the Tea Party anti-establishment conservatives. This has been brewing for some time as Republicans have been in worse shape than many would admit since the economic crash in 2008 exploded their claim that low taxes and business deregulation are the keys to economic prosperity. But the election of economically populist, but mostly rabidly anti-Obama Tea Party Representatives in 2010, masked the GOP problems as much as they created the factions that are now taking up sides for intensive 2014 primary battles for House and Senate candidates.

Shutting down the US government was all fun and games until an unrepentant Senator Ted Cruz encouraged House Republicans to defy Speaker Boehner's leadership and allow the US to default, harming the economy in ways unacceptable to Republican business interests, and the Senate Conservatives Fund enlisted Matt Bevin to run against Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a primary. Now Boehner, McConnell, the Chamber of Commerce and the conservative Republican establishment fully realize they are at war with Tea Party conservative populists. The Tea Party crowd would take control of the Republican Party away from the Chamber and other business groups if it could and to them that is no laughing matter.

The Democrats were looking at all of this as an early Christmas present sending the Republican poll numbers plummeting until the October 1st rollout of the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) started going from bad to worse. Many Democrats have been sloughing this off as a small technical problem that will soon be fixed, but the technical problems go far deeper than just the websites, and the campaign to build support for the Affordable Care Act is losing traction as the President has had to apologize for over-selling the details of his plan.

Democrats including President Obama are predicting the support will grow for the Affordable Care Act and many believe it will be a net positive in time for the 2014 election. Perhaps it will, but Democrats have been telling themselves that Healthcare reform will be popular as soon as people get to know it for years now, and public opinion continues to be under water.

In fact it is remarkable how consistent the polling has been. The Kaiser Family Foundation has been tracking support for the law and all year it's been in the high 30s (now 38% in their October 17-23 poll) while opposition has been holding steady in the low 40s (now 44%). The same poll confirms the Republican position, that "the law should be repealed" appeals only to a 37% minority, outnumbered by the 47% who would keep the current law (25%) or expand it (22%).

The success of health care reform is critical to restoring voters' confidence that Washington can do anything right. This has been the terrain Republicans have been battling on for decades and they have been making more gains than many Democrats acknowledge. However low their approval rating plummets as they bring dysfunction to Washington, they are bringing dysfunction to Washington -- and for the anti-government party, that is not a bad deal. This is why it matters a lot when Democrats roll out a dysfunctional health care law for their largest new government program in a generation.

In the near term both sides are trying to keep the spotlight on the other party's weaknesses which for the Republicans means more votes to delay, defund, or repeal ObamaCare and investigations into the health reform's website, as well as other perceived scandals like Benghazi even if 60 Minutes is now retracting the latest eye witness report as an unreliable witness whose book has been pulled by Simon and Schuster.

For Democrats, putting the spotlight on Republican weaknesses takes the interesting form of thumbing through the "Autopsy" that was conducted following the 2012 election by the Republican National Committee and giving Republicans an opportunity to get right with the non-older white male constituencies their own party is telling them they need to be competitive in national elections.

The real cost of the Democratic misstep is that it makes the next turn of the budget negotiations less predictable and more volatile. Republicans have lost all leverage in these budget battles and this has not changed, but with negative stories about Obamacare in the headlines, the more extreme Republicans will again be emboldened and we may be more likely to see a partial repeat of this fall's partial shutdown.

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