The dawn of the 24-7 news cycle about 15 or so years ago brought with it a few new ways for the media to talk about and cover politics. With all that air time to fill, politics, and certain big news events like your major murders, became part soap opera. Soap operas, to keep the ratings steady, need running themes. What used to be called “Democrats in disarray,” known today in our hurried-up age as #demsindisarray, proved to be a compelling and durable one.
It developed, in part, because that dawn of cable happened to be the era of Clinton “scandals,” real and (mostly) imagined. Remember Craig Livingstone? If you don’t, Google him. If you do, you’re chuckling already, I know, because for about four days there on cable TV in 1996, Livingstone was supposed to be the ruination of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Democrats in disarray!
Yes, Republicans have been in disarray, too, from time to time—the low points of the Iraq War, Katrina, and just last month during the government shutdown. But for a variety of reasons, the 24-7 news cycle era has found Dems in disarray to be a far more potent story line than Republicans in disarray. It’s alliterative, for starters. And it has been, I readily concede, legitimately true at times. Plus, Fox, for many years, drove the agenda that the other cable nets swallowed hook, line, and sinker. MSNBC has been a liberal pushback channel only for five years or so, or less than half the life span of the 24-7 cycle. (Remember when Tucker Carlson was an MSNBC host?) And Republicans have tended to have tougher game faces, march more in lockstep, and not concede those crucial rhetorical inches that Democrats so often feel compelled to grant.
Of course, we are at one of these moments now. Bill Clinton conceded those rhetorical inches to the right on Obamacare, which Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) seized on immediately. At least two blue-state senators, Dianne Feinstein (CA) and Jeff Merkley (OR), have jumped on the “fix Obamacare” bandwagon. A week ago, Majority Leader Harry Reid was not going to allow any changes to the Affordable Care Act reach the floor of his Senate. Now he’s probably going to have to.
Undeniably, a lot of the damage is self-inflicted, and I’ve said that already more than once. It’s a pretty good time for President Obama to crack the whip. Why he evidently didn’t earlier is still mystifying. Or maybe it’s not. He just isn’t a kick-ass-and-take-names kind of guy. But the success of his presidency may be on the line here in the next few weeks, so it’s not the worst idea for him to become one.
At the same time, there’s no need for panic. Even with the continued existence and success of Fox, reality is still reality, and in the end, reality usually trumps cable and hyperventilating reports about who won the morning in Politico. And reality says the enrollment period doesn’t end until next spring, and it’s really not possible to tell how things are going until enrollment has ended and we see both the number of people who’ve enrolled and what percentage healthy vs. sick, because insurers made their guesstimates and pegged their rates to those guesstimates. Reality also says a legislative fix to address the problems faced by those buying insurance on the private market might not be so bad. A bill that allows—doesn’t order, but allows—insurers to keep offering existing policies for one more year while also restricting that offer only to existing customers wouldn’t necessarily blow a big hole in the precepts of the act. I’m not sure why Republicans would agree to it, but the first part of my equation comes from Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI)’s bill, so who knows.
Democrats—especially Obama, but all Democrats—have to take charge of the situation right now. In danger of losing the country’s trust, they must say in essence: “All right, we did screw up Round 1. We’re going to admit it, and we’re going to apologize, and we’re going to fix it, and we’re not going to bullshit you. But we’re also not going to panic. We’re going to make this thing work.”
If they do all those things, they will still come out looking a hell of a lot better than the radical obstructionists. Obama’s approval rating may be down to 40 percent, but that’s four times the Republican Congress’s rating. He can step in and take more control of the agenda here, and he and the Democrats can be seen as the ones sincerely trying to fix these problems, while the Republicans will inevitably be seen as wanting only to kill yet another law and throw yet another wrench into the engine. They will be led once again by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the man who has enticed his party to go down several rat holes already these past couple of years. He is now sitting up on his throne warning that hackers are about to steal applicants’ Social Security numbers, a charge that rings with all the veracity of his earlier accusation that the administration knowingly targeted conservative nonprofit groups.
The current situation is serious. But I remember a lot of other times when it was supposedly curtains for Obama, too, because inside the Beltway, the more disciplined Republicans, who after all are in the luxurious position of just sitting back and firing away, have an easier time winning news cycles. But out beyond the Beltway, the party that shut down the government for three weeks and killed immigration reform and wants to decimate food stamps and can’t even pass its own spending bills doesn’t look very appealing to most people. The fate of Obamacare can be changed. The DNA of the GOP cannot.