Republican hard-liners have made their share of errors and miscalculations in the shutdown standoff. From misreading the public’s opposition to Obamacare as support for the shutdown to fantasizing that Democrats would defund their legislative prize, they have overreached and put their party in a jam. That said, the Democrats have had their own share of missteps, including:
1. The White House’s nonsensical refusal to negotiate, an ultimately untenable position for the president. In the short term, that created message confusion over the non-negotiation meeting with congressional leaders. In the long term, the president must lead and engage Republicans, so crossing his own “red line,” if you will, eventually will seem like a concession.
2. Making Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) the face of the Democratic resistance. Not only is he prone to gaffes like the comment about kids with cancer, but he radiates stubbornness and inflexibility, helping the GOP’s effort to convince voters that both parties are responsible for the shutdown.
3. Refusing to sign the mini-CRs. This allowed Republicans to claim the high ground, at least temporarily, and took some of the burden of the shutdown off the GOP’s back. It has hampered Democrats’ ability to use sob stories against the GOP and resulted in PR disasters (e.g. the WWII vets).
4. Convincing themselves that the pressure is all on the Republicans. It is true that early polling suggests the public regards Republicans as more accountable for the shutdown, but dysfunction does not help Senate Dems up for reelection or do anything to lift the president’s depressed standing. As time goes on, the public may very well conclude Democrats are also to blame and that the president specifically needs to step up to solve the standoff.
5. Delaying the employer mandate. This gave Republicans their biggest opening. If businesses get a break from a requirement and resulting fines, why don’t individuals? Because income verification is not up and running, it will also promote fraud and abuse of the subsidies, thereby proving the GOP’s point that Obamacare is unworkable.
6. Inflexibility on Medicaid. Had the administration been more amenable to providing waivers to the states to reform their programs and reduce fraud and costs, many more governors may have agreed to Medicaid expansion, thereby cementing a key feature of Obamacare and resulting in higher rates of coverage. As is, the program is not fulfilling its purpose of expanding health coverage to the working poor. For tens of millions, Obamacare is not affordable and hence not universal.
7. Over-eagerness for confrontation and a shutdown. It is obvious to all but the most partisan that at any time the Dems could have thrown the speaker of the House a lifeline, suggesting a small compromise to end the shutdown and isolate the GOP hard-liners (e.g. suspending the medical device tax). Dems are making the same mistake that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) does: Where’s the endgame?
8. The liberal echo chamber. I’ve hardly been shy about highlighting the right-wing bubble-wrap mentality and the danger of outside voices pumping themselves up to create unrealistic expectations. The same is true of the left. Writing column after column that amounts to “The GOP must cave” — however satisfying for the left-leaning punditocracy — is self-defeating. The suggestion is both unrealistic and unhelpful. It perpetuates the false impression that Democrats aren’t at risk. Moreover, it is not a strategy designed to promote grown-up leadership, which in the end would inure to the president’s advantage.
9. Presidential tone. The president can’t be “exasperated” and should not be seen as taunting the opposition. He is not rising above the fray and becoming the larger-than-mere-pols image we expect of the president. He is, in short, oblivious to the fact that simply hurting Republicans doesn’t help him.
10. Stepping on their own message. Just as the shutdown has distracted Republicans from focusing on Obamacare’s rocky rollout, the president has spent time throwing darts at Republicans instead of making hordes of new enrollees (there are hordes, right?) the face of Obamacare. There is something to be said about first impressions, and so far Obamacare doesn’t have a very good one.
None of this means that Republican hard-liners are any less to blame for this mess or that more courageous action on the part of moderate Republicans was sorely lacking. I’ve hammered both points repeatedly. But, to be frank, the Democrats could be doing a lot better than they are. They’ve let the GOP back into the game. In the process, they’ve prolonged a standoff in which they, too, are trapped.
A final tip for Democrats: A great number of mainstream Republicans and business interests are thoroughly disgusted with the GOP but see the Democrats as inept at problem-solving and ending crises. If the Republican Party used to be the “dad” party and Democratic Party the “mom” party, the GOP is getting a reputation nowadays as the “spoiled children” party. That means there is room for a responsible, mature adult. If Dems showed more finesse and effectiveness, there would be, I suspect, a great number of defections from the GOP. Rather than focusing on their own cheerleaders, Dems should keep in mind those disillusioned Republicans who are ripe for the picking. Right now, however, they aren’t an attractive alternative.