The nation’s two dominant political parties seem to be waging a bizarre war of attrition, with each trying to alienate the fewest number of voters.
They’re both losing.
A landmark new Gallup poll shows 42% of Americans now consider themselves political independents beholden to neither Democrats nor Republicans. That’s a record high. Republicans seem to have lost the most, with just 25% identifying with the GOP — down from 34% in 2004, when President George W. Bush won a second term in the White House. Democrats have nothing to celebrate, however, with their share falling from 36% in 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected president, to 31% today.
It’s well-known that Americans are fed up with all the pointless spitball fights in Washington. But their disgust with politicians is fundamentally an economic problem, with most national leaders unable to press or even articulate rational solutions to a persistently weak economy and falling living standards for many.
What Americans want
Americans have been clear in telling their elected officials what they want. In poll after poll, people say a weak economy and lack of good jobs are the most pressing problems in the U.S. today. Here’s what Congress has done about it during the past few years: raise taxes, cut government spending, shut down the government, and threaten twice to default on U.S. debt, spooking financial markets. There’s been some minor progress on scaling back the $17 trillion national debt, but most economists will tell you that does little or nothing to help the economy in the short run, though it can help a few years down the road.
Obamacare, the sweeping health-reform law that passed in 2010, is cited as a source of salvation by Democrats who support it and as a disaster by Republicans who oppose it. It’s neither, and the extremist positions taken by both sides help explain why voters are thumbing their noses in both directions. Obamacare will help some people and impose costs on others, in the end probably having an impact that ranks somewhere between -3 and +3 on a scale that ranges from -10 to +10.
The economy needs a lot more help, meanwhile, than praising Obamacare or repealing it will ever provide. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke channeled many people’s frustrations with politicians when he said during a recent speech that “excessively tight near-term fiscal policies have likely been counterproductive.” In plain English, he’s saying Congress has been hurting the economy, not helping it.
Retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates is more outspoken in his new memoir, describing Congress as “uncivil, incompetent … micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country.” Once they’re out of government and able to speak freely, Bernanke and other economic officials may express views similar to those of Gates, since Congress has flubbed economic matters at least as badly as national-security ones.
The partisan nonsense will probably continue throughout 2014, right up to the midterm elections in November. There will be several important issues before Congress on which Americans want sensible action — which they probably won’t get. More than two-thirds of Americans, for instance, say they favor a modest increase in the minimum wage, from $7.25 an hour to perhaps $8.50 or $9. A majority also supports immigration reform, which business groups say would aid startups and perhaps create jobs. Other issues with bipartisan support that would help the economy include streamlining the tax code, scaling back regulations on small businesses and investing more in public infrastructure. Odds Congress will act on them this year: slim to none.
The biggest mystery may be why neither party seems interested in moving to the center and pursuing sensible policies independents favor. (One big reason: vast amounts of political donations that flow to congressional committee chairmen and the like, essentially locking the status quo in place). Here's one safe prediction, though: As the elections approach, the rhetoric will move to the center, since both parties need some of those independent swing voters in order to win. Then we’ll go right back to partisan warfare, with even more voters, perhaps, defecting from the traditional parties by this time next year.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.