13 biggest political blunders of 2013 -- and what they mean for the year ahead
The unquestionable emotional highpoint of the president’s State of the Union address was his insistence that the families of victims of gun violence deserved gun control legislation to be brought to a full vote in the Republican-led House, and to not be filibustered by Republicans in the Senate. But with that clarion call, the president irrevocably made the legislation in question his own, and if Republicans in Congress have made one thing clear, it’s that they’re not going to give the president anything that he says he wants publicly. It was smart to put gun-culture warriors like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in charge of crafting the legislation, but it would have had a better chance of passing if Obama had laid low, like he has on immigration, and prodded things along behind the scenes.
As big a mistake as it was for the president to put himself out in front on gun legislation, it was an even bigger error for Republicans to oppose it. After all, 90% of the American public supports expanded background checks, the centerpiece of the legislation. By opposing it, the Republicans enraged people like Michael Bloomberg, above, who is ready to give the NRA a run for its money, so to speak. It also gave Democratic challengers in moderate districts across the country an opening to claim the center on guns. Expect to hear a lot of Democratic candidates saying things in 2014 like, “I’m against gun control but I’m for background checks.”
The conventional wisdom right now is that the Affordable Care Act is a political loser, and the administration has, admittedly, significantly bungled the rollout. But despite widespread skepticism about the law, most Americans want to see it improved, not repealed. Republicans have worked themselves into a corner where their base is demanding repeal and average voters disagree. Again, this opens up space for Democratic challengers to claim the middle. Expect to hear politicians saying things like: “Some on the left want to leave the Affordable Care Act exactly as it is; some on the right want to get rid of it altogether. I say let’s keep what’s working and fix what isn’t.”
Admittedly, this was more a mistake from years past, but Obama’s euphoric reception in Israel just underscores what a fabulous miscalculation it was for him not to visit during his first term, especially when brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was laid out as a priority from the first days of his administration. We will never know how many of the political headaches with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have been avoided if the Israeli public had a better sense of Obama four years ago. But OK, better late than never. Moving on.
By the time House Republicans voted to reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act in February, the political damage had already been done. For most, supporting VAWA -- an act that addresses such controversial issues as domestic violence shelters and rape hot-lines -- was a no-brainer. But hard-line conservatives were outraged by expanded protections for gays and lesbians, among other things, and so the legislation that was due for renewal in 2012 sat idle until the political pressure on House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was just too great to not bring it up for a vote before it lapsed. If Boehner had just brought it up for a vote sooner, he could have saved his party a lot of “war on women” headlines.
It’s not clear whose decision it was to not shut down Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) as soon as he started proving himself to be a loose cannon at the beginning of the year. Surely he’s got a skeleton in his closet somewhere that could be used to derail him? But if the Republicans don’t want this first-year backbencher to lead their party over a cliff in 2014, like he did this year with the government shutdown, they’d be well served to turn him into a Michele Bachmann-esque laughingstock as quickly as possible.
When the Senate passed bipartisan immigration reform in the summer, immigration advocates were thrilled, but the right-wing talk radio base was inflamed with predictable shouts of “amnesty.” As the year wore on, it became clear that although there are probably enough votes in the House to pass the bill with a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans -- which is to say, the only way anything meaningful ever passes the House these days -- House Speaker John Boehner, above, had no intention of bringing it up for a vote without a majority of his caucus supporting it. Now the Republican senators who voted for it are left with the worst of all worlds: a perceived betrayal of their base, a Republican brand that’s still toxic with Latinos, and no clear path to enacting reform.
All year long, the White House’s go-to strategy for confronting allegations of scandal was to play it cool and insist that if there was any wrongdoing, the president didn’t know about it. Playing it cool was smart, especially when some of the “scandals” turned out to not really be scandals at all. Indeed, in time it was proved that the deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, while tragic, was not a product of gross negligence or malfeasance, and the IRS was demonstrated to not be targeting only conservative groups. But when faced with questions on such incidents as “Fast and Furious,” subpoenaing the Associated Press and spying on German Chancellor Andrea Merkel, the White House’s repeated insistence that Obama “didn’t know” about the news of the day undermined his leadership and made it feel like nobody was at the wheel of the ship of state. It also lent the appearance of credibility to the president’s opponents when they painted him as either a liar or a fool during the HealthCare.gov fiasco.
There is an argument to be made that government should not interfere with the free market and should just let the chips fall where they may. That is the cold but clear logic for cutting food stamps that help the most vulnerable among us not to starve. But when Republicans in the House voted to cut food stamps for the poor while simultaneously voting to continue providing government subsidies to agribusiness, they transparently undermined their own argument. Beyond the ethical question of whether wealthy businesses deserve welfare more than hungry people, it also showed the political media that conservative arguments about the free market were, at best, selectively applied. That sowing of doubt among the umpires left very little goodwill when the bigger story hit later in the year: the government shutdown.
The president has an enormous scandal hiding in plain sight that Republicans have failed to effectively use to their advantage: the NSA. Americans are much more concerned about privacy than they are about whether Obama called the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism. Even people who don’t follow politics or know the name Edward Snowden are aware that the government is, in some capacity, tracking them. This is a major vulnerability that the Republicans have yet to effectively make use of, and Republicans ignore it to their own detriment. And the president would be wise to have a lot more answers ready when more revelations about the NSA are inevitably made next year.
Republicans made a massive miscalculation when they assumed that Obama’s hardball tactics on the debt ceiling were just posturing. By playing a game of brinkmanship with the country’s credit, the tea party wing of the Republican Party spooked the traditional pro-business wing and set the stage for some very bitter primaries in 2014. Meanwhile, shutting down the government confirmed the perception of an already skeptical public that Republicans were not interested in governing. And again, the Republican House opened the door for Democratic challengers in moderate districts to step up in 2014 with lines like: “I don’t agree with President Obama on everything, but I’d rather negotiate with him on how we can make things better than just shut everything down.” In short, Republicans gave Democrats the win that Democrats couldn’t score for themselves.
To see how damaging the HealthCare.gov rollout was for the president and for progressives in general, don’t look at the polls that show his approval ratings plummeting in November. Just imagine what would have happened if the website had worked. If the website had worked, the story coming out of the government shutdown would have been about people signing up for healthcare for the first time and how Republicans had just brought the country to a halt to prevent that from happening. If the website had worked, the “if you like your plan” promise wouldn’t have felt like such a big deal because people receiving cancellation notices would have more often than not been able to immediately sign up for a better plan at a better price. Most important, if the website had worked, it would have shown that government can work, which is the underlying prerequisite for all of progressivism.
It wasn’t easy to get 51 Democratic votes to change the rules of the Senate so that most presidential appointments could be confirmed by a simple majority. Whenever the issue came up, there was inevitably a “gang” of eight or 14 or whatever who would conjure some last-minute compromise. Everyone understood that if the filibuster was thrown out when Democrats were in the majority, it would be used against them when, eventually, Republicans regained the majority. So if Republicans had stuck by their July agreement to only filibuster in extraordinary circumstances, they would have been able to slow the process enough to cause serious headaches for Obama. But by trying to shut down the process, Republicans left even the most conservative Democrats with a feeling that there was no choice but to move to a simple majority. Now the president can appoint judges who are more likely to see eye-to-eye with him on legal issues and regulators who will be sympathetic to his agenda on issues like climate change and healthcare.