Unstable and Unpredictable Outcomes

Unstable and Unpredictable Outcomes

by digby

Charlie Cook has a must read piece today that I thinks we all need to digest and think about. Unfortunately, it's not good, but there's no point in putting our heads in the sand:

Now that you have heard, or at least read about, Obama’s address to Congress and the Republicans’ reaction, spend 10 minutes looking at “A Pivot Point in American Opinion: The Debt-Ceiling Negotiation and Its Consequences” here. It’s a fascinating and sobering 36-slide presentation of polling data, focus-group findings, and observations prepared by Republican pollster Bill McInturff. After reading McInturff’s report, ask yourself whether anything either the president or Republican congressional leaders said fundamentally changes the jobless problem, the political climate, or, for that matter, the way you perceive the players in Washington.

McInturff’s thesis is that over the past 30 years, certain “signal events” have come to define American politics and change the course of history. Specifically, he points to “the Iranian hostage crisis, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Lehman Brother’s collapse, and the recessions that defined the 1980, 1992, and 2008 presidential campaigns” as such defining events. Based on considerable polling by his firm, Public Opinion Strategies, and jointly with Democrat Peter Hart in their work on the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, as well as on other public polls, McInturff argues in a cover memo, “The debt-ceiling negotiation is an extremely significant event that is profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and the federal government. It has led to a scary erosion in confidence in both, at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded.”

He continues, “It is important to recognize how fragile economic perceptions were headed into the final stretch of the debt-ceiling negotiation. Along with Hart Research [Associates], we have been doing economic tracking roughly every quarter from 2007 through today for CNBC. Workers’ perceptions of their likelihood to get a raise, Americans’ confidence in the stock market, and homeowners’ perceptions of their home value were as weak or weaker in June 2011 than they have been at any point during this four-year period.”

The memo goes on to assert, “Americans’ attitudes about the debt ceiling are not only based on the actual outcome but are primarily derived from the manner in which this issue was debated and resolved. Their views about this process are clear, and are overwhelmingly negative.” McInturff contends, “The perception of how Washington handled the debt-ceiling negotiation led to an immediate collapse of confidence in government and all the major players, including President Obama and Republicans in Congress.”

Moreover, he says, “the collapse of confidence in government has substantially eroded already weak consumer confidence. Today’s consumer-confidence rating is the fourth lowest since 1952. Make no mistake: This collapse of economic confidence is not an independent event driven only by economic reality. This sharp a drop in consumer confidence is a direct consequence of the lack of confidence in our political system and its leaders.”

McInturff concludes, “As our firm conducted focus groups … the change in tone in the wake of the debt-ceiling negotiation was striking. We are entering a new phase of the American political dialogue that has been irrevocably shifted in a way that will prove difficult to predict. Historically, though, this type of deep voter anger, unease, and economic pessimism leads to unstable and unpredictable political outcomes.”

Oh yeah.

And all that goes for the politically aware as well as the low information and marginally aware citizens. In fact, those of us who watched the thing unfold in daily detail were probably the most gobsmacked by what we saw, and left reeling with the knowledge that our system is not only dysfunctional but our political class is both inept and cynical to point of near chaos. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it.

There was a lot of chatter during the lame duck that the President should get the debt ceiling out of the way as part of the deal. If it's been shown definitively why they didn't do that, I haven't seen it, but the speculation was that they truly believed Boehner and Co. would have to "behave" if they wanted to be taken "seriously." However, it seemed clear to me from January on, when Cantor famously said the debt ceiling was a "leverage" moment, that the administration had decided that was their opportunity to pass the Grand Bargain. The debacle that followed was, in my view, mostly a result of that quixotic desire.

History has shown that to deal with these games of congressional chicken, particularly those that feature the toxic mix of craven politics and extremist ideology that characterizes the modern conservative movement, presidents must assert their leadership. I think this may even be a fundamental instinct --- to know when it's time to push back hard. In any case, these Republicans were already known to be lunatics, so negotiating with them as if they were responsible parties was absurd to begin with. But to do it with an eagerness to slay your own party's sacred cows was downright delusional. Once engaged, there was no way to preserve faith in the government --- the president handed all the power to the Tea Party.

Still, it was certainly possible that a Grand Bargain could have been struck on the terms the president set forth ---- those terms, after all, were terms that Newt Gingrich would have thought were too radical not even a decade ago. John Boehner was certainly open to it. But this GOP is Gingrich 2.0, much more unstable, much more anarchistic. (This probably says everything you need to know about these people.) They would not take yes for an answer on the Grand Bargain.

But the final terms of the deal were hardly any better. As Boehner said, he got 98% of what he wanted, which was actually the ability to play this debate out over and over and over again, driving down the people's faith in government even more. The president looks feckless --- is feckless --- every time he begs them to be "responsible" and they laugh in his face. And he scares the American people by being unwilling to face them down.

What's more frightening than watching someone negotiate with terrorists --- and lose? Even some of those who support the GOP are getting a sick feeling that this is careening out of control. That dynamic is enough to make all but the most blind partisans lose faith in the system.

Obviously, it isn't all the president's fault. They truly are nuts. But his approach has been wrong from the beginning, rigidly adhering to a destructive centrism and a political strategy that isn't working, believing his own hype, refusing to accept that the country is in a political civil war that will destroy him right along with the rest of us if it goes wrong. Regardless of how much people admire him, and many do, those numbers above reflect that they feel that this country is in trouble. I don't think they believe anymore that he can fix it.

The debt ceiling debacle was a crucible that proved government is failing. And, as McInturff says above, "historically, this type of deep voter anger, unease, and economic pessimism leads to unstable and unpredictable political outcomes.” It's a dangerous moment.