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Joshua Green: Polls tell the story of Washington’s ineptitude

  • Boston Globe
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, at 12 a.m.

A pair of recent polls marked a depressing new low in what feels like the never-ending descent of American politics – and some news from Congress reveals why it will continue. Together, they succinctly explain Washington’s epic dysfunction.

A Quinnipiac University poll found that President Obama’s approval rating has hit an all-time low of 39 percent, while Gallup found that Congress’ approval rating has fallen to 9 percent, the lowest since the Nixon administration. These miserable numbers are driven by two distinct trends: the gradual implosion of the Republican Party over the past year and the sudden collapse of President Obama’s health care law.

The first trend has been the reigning Washington story line practically since the defeat of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Republicans responded to the loss with a brief, hopeful bout of introspection that culminated with the Republican National Committee calling on the party to pass comprehensive immigration reform and broaden its appeal. But this vision of renewal was quickly subsumed by the familiar opposition to Obama, which deepened and intensified, and eventually led to the government shutdown. Last month, Republican popularity hit a new low.

But as the Quinnipiac poll shows, Republicans’ political fortunes haven’t suffered all that much as a result. Congressional Republicans are currently more trusted than Obama to handle almost every major policy issue: health care (43 to 42 percent), the economy (45 to 41 percent), immigration (41 to 40 percent) and the federal budget (45 to 40 percent).

How can it be that a party caught in the throes of a civil war and less popular than Nixon during Watergate is still preferred by most Americans?

The answer lies in the other trend.

The debacle of the Obamacare rollout and the president’s less-than-truthful statement that “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it” have undermined the public’s trust in him. For the first time, a majority of Americans say that Obama is not honest and trustworthy (52 to 44 percent).

For Republicans, this is an amazing stroke of good fortune – or at least, it ought to be. But a recent story illustrated why Republicans probably won’t be able to take advantage of this opening.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., has been beavering away for months on a Republican plan on corporate tax reform and was preparing to unveil it. But now Republican leaders are worried about political damage if they release a plan to revise the tax code and limit popular breaks.

Let that one sink in for a moment: Republican leaders are trying to block their own tax-reform plan for fear that it will prove too extreme and inflict further damage on the party. And when they do work up the courage to put forward aggressive legislation, they frequently discover that they cannot muster enough Republican support to pass it. That is often the case with their own budget.

Usually, when Congress is divided, the parties pass their agenda through the chamber they control and the hard part is reconciling the two. What House Republicans have demonstrated is that they can’t enact an agenda even when they’re in charge.

Woven together, these threads tell the story of Washington’s ongoing ineptitude: Americans are fast losing faith in the president, his party and his signature policy achievement. But while they’re open to the idea of handing power to the opposition, Republicans are busy demonstrating that they have no idea how to govern.

Joshua Green writes for the Boston Globe.

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