Some is image, some is reality, some is tough times – but neither will crack that on their current path.
The GOP knows it has an image problem. It regularly polls below anything this side of toenail fungus. So the party elders have spent a lot of energy considering how to fix their messaging. The real problem, though, doesn’t seem to lie as much with the messaging as the message. The GOP in practice is for all intents and purposes the party of the one percent (or the point one percent). Some of its principles are positive messages – freedom, entrepreneurship, and so forth. What it actually does, however, is advocate for the elite at the expense of everyone else – and it really doesn’t even propose, much less seriously push, anything that helps the everyman. The public seems to get that – maybe imperfectly, but they get it. In their mind, the GOP has become the party of the plutocrats – with an antiscientific and often wilfully blind crowd of Fox News viewers cobbled on. This is not an appetizing portrait. In fact arguably the mystery is not why the GOP doesn’t do better, but why it does as well as it does while acting so consistently to the detriment of most of its own voters.
So why don’t liberals clean up? Because they don’t look too great themselves. Substantively they haven’t delivered on their promises. Maybe that is, as Kuttner says, because of conservative obstruction to a greater or lesser degree. But the average voter doesn’t seem to care nearly as much about the why as about the what – and the what is a lack of major improvement. Worse still, many see them as just throwing tax dollars away on different interest groups – and when those groups are not them, it’s unfavorable. This is particularly bad when times are tight – people seem more willing to be generous with the poor when they are in good shape themselves, but when people are straining to make ends meet, it’s harder to favor payments to anyone else – particularly those who are perceived as working less hard (or not at all). Liberals also have the problem that they are identified with government, which people generally think doesn’t work. Ok, partly they think that because conservatives are doing their best to make sure it doesn’t work. But government is also pretty good at botching things up even when no one is deliberately throwing wrenches into the gears. Take Healthcare.gov. So liberals look to most of the public as maybe closer in heart to the middle class than conservatives, but ineffective, catering to the indolent with money the country doesn’t have, and not a very positive alternative in themselves.
The negative views of both sides are exacerbated by gridlock and polarization. Between the very deep divides that exist and the quirks of the political process, (gerrymandering etc) it is very difficult for either side to really do things. There have been major exceptions, true (eg the Bush tax cuts or Obamacare). Still, it’s so much easier to stop then to do that neither party can end up with much in the way of trophies. Even when something gets done at all, it’s complicated, messy, and usually unsatisfying in one way or another. There seems to be an absence of “grand triumphs” that anyone can trumpet. This leads to even greater disaffection and disappointment, as well as a political culture of persistently running on not being the other guy rather than having a positive message. With the possible exception of Obama in 2008, it’s rare that anyone wins for who they claim to be rather than who they aren’t. The last several *waves” have all been incarnations to one level or another of “throw da bums out”, with no real mandates for (or even really approval of) their replacements.
Maybe part of this is that when things are on a general downward slope, everyone is dissatisfied – the opposite facet of the rising tide lifts all boats trope. We’re currently coping with a whole series of trends – the soaring costs of health care and college, the hollowing out of certain sectors, the sluggish job situation, etc, etc – that have been building for years. Taken together, they create a generalized and quite justifiable angst in the electorate – especially given that most were raised in better living standards than even relatively good jobs can support now. That angst lies behind much of the Tea Party frustration (though whether that angst has been targeted in the right directions is another question entirely). On top of that, really turning things around is exceedingly difficult especially given a toxic political climate and often postrational debate environment, where actual facts matter less and less to a disturbingly high fraction of the politicians and the people as well. With a chronically disappointed electorate, elections seem to boil down to picking lesser of two evils in all but the most unusual cases.
The bottom line is that both parties have severe image problems – but that really isn’t the core of the problem. To a much greater degree, they have substance problems (maybe in the literal sense too for some members) underlying them. Both have to operate in a difficult environment against a backdrop of tremendous angst. And both have opportunities to change where they stand and how they see things going – but they aren’t likely to be able to really fix anything on their own either, so victories will remain fleeting and the battle will continue to be second worst until the game changes.
– Dale Edmondson