What a massively disappointing year, and how slim the hopes for a more productive 2014.
’Tis the season, I know, and sorry to be the bearer of grumpy tidings. But Washington, which never fails to disappoint, managed to disappoint more than usual this year, from the unnecessary government shutdown to the outrageous failure to make even minimal progress on gun violence in the wake of the massacre at Newtown.
There are enough offenders to trigger a coal shortage.
Let’s start at the top: President Obama. First and foremost, for the botched rollout of his health-care plan, an epic managerial failure.
Was there — is there — a senior official whose full-time job involved overseeing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act? Not a Cabinet secretary with multiple competing responsibilities. Not an obscure bureaucrat without the juice to press a White House in the middle of a reelection campaign to move ahead with time- sensitive regulations. Not an eleventh-hour Mr. Fix-it, no matter how capable, to clean up the cyber-mess and then move on.
How could the president, understanding how central the law’s success is to his legacy, have devoted so little care to ensuring that this complex enterprise was launched with the greatest chance of success? How could he and his top advisers have been so clueless about the looming Web site disaster?
In the end, I believe the Affordable Care Act will survive and work. Its important benefits — expanded and reliable coverage — are too great a moral imperative to abandon; its flaws are fixable.
The greater damage is, in ascending order of importance, to the president’s reputation, the Democrats’ political prospects and the enterprise of activist government. On all three, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll offers stark confirmation: Obama and congressional Republicans are tied at 41 percent on the question of who can better handle the country’s problems. A year ago, the president enjoyed a 15-point advantage.
As to Republicans in Congress, where to start? With the notion that after the deaths of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary, Congress could not rouse itself even to expand required background checks for gun purchasers? With the notion that even after Republicans’ disastrous performance in the 2012 election, a comprehensive immigration reform bill could pass the Senate only to be mired in the House? With the utterly stupid, self-defeating government shutdown?
The cockeyed optimist might look at the new budget deal and discern glimmers of hope. Certainly, bipartisan baby steps are better than partisan tantrums. Staving off the threat of shutdown for nearly two years (I don’t take House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s recent debt-ceiling posturing all that seriously) is a subject for relief, if not celebration. And House Speaker John Boehner’s exasperation with his party’s perfectionist caucus is long overdue.
On the topic of Boehner’s exasperation, another, largely overlooked sapling of hope comes in the speaker’s recent hiring of immigration adviser Rebecca Tallent, former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and most recently an immigration expert at the relentlessly sensible Bipartisan Policy Center. When Mark Krikorian of the anti-reform Center for Immigration Studies blasted Tallent on Twitter as “McCain’s amnesty captain,” you knew Boehner was doing something right — or at least inclined in that direction.
And yet, it’s difficult to celebrate a budget deal whose main achievement is undoing some of the self-inflicted damage of the “sequester” — in part through budget gimmickry. The deal “pays for” about one-third of the immediate additional spending by pledging cuts far in the future.
More disappointing, there’s little reason to think that the deal foretells an ability to take the necessary, and far more painful, steps to improve the country’s long-term fiscal outlook.
Consider the opposition to the deal from Republican senators such as Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Roger Wicker of Mississippi because it cuts too much from veterans.
The provision would reduce cost-of-living adjustments for working-age retirees — service members become eligible for pensions after 20 years, and on average begin collecting by age 42. At age 62, veterans would receive the full cost-of-living adjustments; until then, they would receive smaller adjustments, but not zero. This is hardly paying for spending “on the backs of our . . . military retirees.”
Less dysfunctional is better than more dysfunctional. But less dysfunctional is not the equivalent of functional — and after this disappointing political year, that is Washington’s dreary reality.