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Monday, October 28, 2013

Where did the Republican political acumen go?

by David Atkins

It's hard to describe to political activists who cut their teeth during the Obama era just how intimidating Republicans were during the early 2000s. Conservatives had forced or persuaded a Democratic president to declare the era of big government at an end, to smash welfare, to deregulate Wall Street and pass free trade agreements one after the other. Then Republicans managed to elect an obvious fool to the White House, staging a remarkable display of partisan dominance on the Supreme Court. After 9/11, most progressives were so cowed by the Bush Administration that the majority of online activists at the time only dared go by pseudonyms. Karl Rove was the genius mastermind who sent George W. Bush back to the White House and maintained GOP control of Congress. It was only Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing disaster of Iraq that started to really tarnish the Republican brand. Well, that and the push to privatize Social Security, a misstep that Bush quickly backed away from one he and his handlers realized how harmful it was to them.

But again, it's hard to overestimate how much we all walked in fear and awe of the Republican political achievement, even as we despised their ethics and their policies. Even to this day, much of what progressive organizers do is attempt to catch up in various ways to the institutional dominance of the right on many levels, replicating its successes in moving the national political conversation farther to right on economic issues decade after decade.

Which leads us to today. Those who came of age in the era of Obama have always seen Republicans as incompetent fuddy duddies lost in a bygone era, saved only by the vast amounts of corrupting money they have to throw into the political machine.

But those of us who have been around longer are often genuinely confused. Still shellshocked by the Bush years (and the Reagan and Clinton years, for that matter), we often find it hard to decide: have the Republicans just gone crazy, or are they crazy like a fox?

Are the Tea Partiers actually destroying the GOP brand, or are they sneakily moving the Overton Window to allow for Medicare and Social Security cuts to seem sane by contrast?

I myself am wary, not sure what to believe on any given day. But increasingly, it just seems that Republicans are on a ship without a captain or a rudder. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some brilliant maneuver that will show the masterful strategic thinking behind their tactics, but I don't think it's coming.

Take, for instance, the politics of Obamacare at the moment. Republicans just got through seriously damaging their brand by shutting down the government for two weeks, making Obamacare more popular in the bargain. They still need to do something to win over minority, youth and women voters or their goose is cooked by the next redistricting or sooner. One would think that Republicans would want to be coming up with some "replacement" plan for Obamacare that would help cover young people, women and minorities. Far be it from me to offer them any ideas, but if I were a Republican strategist right now I would be looking at ways to wedge parts of the Democratic base away from one another, offering revenue neutral subsidies to core voting groups I needed by offering to remove less popular subsidies to smaller Democratic-aligned groups I'll never win. The last thing I would be doing is fighting a law with high marks from Latinos while running ads to encourage young adults not to get health insurance. Sociopathic policy aside, that's just very bad politics.

And I sure as heck wouldn't be poking my fingers in the eyes of seniors, my most loyal voting bloc, by threatening Social Security and Medicare.

Instead, after punching themselves in the face by shutting down the government over Obamacare and "entitlements", they're doubling down on attacking the implementation of the website. Really?

Yes, the website is messed up and it's somewhat embarrassing--though it should be much more embarrassing for neoliberal advocates of public-private partnership kludges than for traditional progressives. But the website is going to be fixed by the time the deadlines approach, which is incidentally when the majority of people will sign up.

But even in the worst case scenario where the website does stay broken, people in need of decent health insurance aren't simply going to give up. They'll do it the old-fashioned way by calling, faxing, scanning and going to offices in person if need be. Anyone who thinks they won't, doesn't realize the nationwide healthcare desperation that forced the legislation in the first place.

Which means that by the time of the next Congressional election in 2014, the website glitches will be a distant memory. Any Republican running on "Sure, you have much better health insurance than you did a year ago, but weren't you frustrated at the glitchy website a year ago?" is going to get creamed.

Now, in the aftermath of a disastrous shutdown caused by the Tea Partiers, would be the perfect time for that fabled Republican rebrand to begin.

But it doesn't like anyone is in control of the ship, or that there's any master plan at work.

For progressives like me who operated in fear of these people for many years, the notion that they are simply wildly politically incompetent is very weird. Where did all their political acumen go, and how did it disappear so quickly?