No matter what challenges he faces, President Obama has at least one thing going for him. They’re called Republicans.
Especially helpful to Obama — and of very little use to the rest of us — are the detached and clueless leaders who make up the Republican establishment in Washington. Although they’d like to harness the enthusiasm for the tea party movement to help them win elections, they really don’t connect with that crowd because the very thing the protesters are angry about — the runaway spending, the irresponsible borrowing, the exponential growth of government, etc. — the Republican leaders had a hand in creating. They spent billions of dollars of taxpayer money during the years of the Bush administration, and they’ve never taken serious goals like reducing the national debt. They’re the reason that many Americans don’t see any difference between the two major parties.
Take Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who — during a recent appearance on ABC News’ This Week — showed just how out of step he is with those who want to reform government. Guest host Matthew Dowd, a Republican strategist and ABC News contributor, filleted McConnell with a few simple questions that McConnell either had trouble answering or ducked altogether.
First, Dowd asked McConnell why, despite a string of election victories for Republicans in Virginia, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, a recent poll showed that — when asked whom it trusted on health care — 49 percent of respondents said they trust Obama, 37 percent said they trust the Democrats in Congress, and only 32 percent said they trust Republican leaders in Congress.
This is striking, especially when you consider that Obama and Democrats have turned in an atrocious performance on health care reform. Does that mean that, in the eyes of many Americans, Republicans have done even a poorer job of handling the issue?
McConnell immediately steered the question away from Congress and toward the health care bill. Then he spent the next two minutes rattling off Republican talking points about why the Democratic-sponsored legislation is deeply flawed.
We already know that, Senator. But that wasn’t the question.
Dowd tried again, asking what Republicans can do to “get some benefit” from public anxiety over the Democratic misadventure in health care reform. Obviously, it’s not happening now if the poll shows Republicans in third place in terms of who people trust to fix the health care system.
McConnell ducked again, telling Dowd: “Well, look, you’re talking about the election in November. I’m talking about the policy in the country now.” Then came more talking points, this time about how the public was worried about the enormous cost of the Democrats’ health care reform plan — or, as McConnell put it, a “$2.5 trillion spending program, brand new entitlement.”
That provided Dowd an opening to talk about spending, and how difficult it is for the American people to “trust either side on debt and on the deficit and on spending.” Why, he asked, should people trust Republicans anymore than Democrats to curb spending and reduce the debt when they seem to say a “pox on everyone”?
McConnell tried again to shift the focus away from talk of elections and politics and focus on “what’s happening now.” Then he tried to piggyback on the concern over spending, insisting that “the American people would like for us to … quit spending this massive amount of money and racking up these tremendous debts.”
Finally, Dowd asked McConnell about why Sen. Jim Bunning, R-KY — whom McConnell famously doesn’t get along with — was told to stand down by Republican leaders when he held up a bill to extend unemployment benefits because Congress hadn’t paid for it and was going to borrow more to fund it. What happened to fiscal discipline as a Republican principle?
McConnell tried to dodge the question by joking that “nobody tells Jim Bunning to stand down” and then conceded that his colleague “had a good point” — that when Congress wants to provide such relief “we ought to pay for it, make it deficit-neutral.”
Of course that’s what Congress ought to do. And yet, there’s no evidence that McConnell and other congressional leaders — in either party — are actually equipped to follow through.
The difference is, Democrats are the party in power. So they enjoy the advantage of incumbency. If Republicans want to overcome that factor and regain control of Congress, they’ll have to take their game up a notch. That starts with listening to grassroots concerns about spending and debt, and actually doing something about both. It means demanding that Congress follow its own laws and pay for programs as it goes. And, above all, as Mitch McConnell ably illustrated, it means sounding like the solution — instead of the problem.