How Crazies Are Destroying Your Party

Ron Fournier
National Journal

This is what happens when the two parties ruling Washington lose touch with America and pander to their crazy-extreme bases: President Obama's competency and personality ratings are nose-diving, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journalpoll; barely a sliver of the public thinks highly of the Republican Party; and two-thirds of Americans want to replace their own member of Congress.  

Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who conducted the survey with Republican Bill McInturff, called this a "Howard Beale moment," a reference to the famous rant from the 1976 movie Network.

More from NJ: How Crazies Are Destroying Your Party

"We're mad as hell," Hart said, "and we're not going to take it anymore."

More from NJ: The Right to Vote

Privately, party strategists agree. On Obama, a Democratic operative who works with the White House emailed me to say: "It's his Titanic moment. He's hit the iceberg, but they keep acting like no water is coming into the ship."

More from NJ: The Fed's Last Troublemaker

A GOP operative who also requested anonymity said that Wednesday's hearing on Obamacare highlighted what's wrong with his party. "We looked like we were beating [up] the HHS secretary," he said of Kathleen Sebelius. "Why do we have to always overdo it?"

Like many other party regulars, these two operatives worry that hardheaded partisans are pushing both the GOP and Democratic Party away from the political center. The phenomena is playing out unevenly (the GOP is arguably more beholden to its base than the Democrats) and for a number of reasons, including hyper-redistricting, the democratization of political money and the polarization of the public itself.  

But with each self-inflicted Washington crisis, notions such as an independent presidential bid, the dissolution of one or both major parties, and the rise of new political organizations seem less outrageous. The thinking goes like this: If voters today are more empowered than ever via technology (consider the disruption of retail, entertainment, and media industries), how long will they wait before blowing up the two-party system?

The theory plays out three ways in the NBC/WSJ poll:

1) Republicans are blamed more than Democrats for this month's shutdown, and are generally held in the lowest esteem. Their organizing principle seems to be obstruction, even destruction, of the political system. The party is split between establishment Republicans and a no-compromise tea party.

  • Only 22 percent see the GOP in a positive light, the lowest rating recorded by NBC/WSJ, one of the most respected polls in politics.
  • Thirty-eight percent of Americans blame Republicans for the shutdown, compared with 23 percent who blame Obama and 36 percent equally angry at both sides.
  • Only 17 percent of the public has a positive view of House Speaker John Boehner, the highest-ranking GOP elected official. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's favorability rating is just 11 percent.

2) Obama fares better than Republicans, but his second term is entering a danger zone familiar to President George W. Bush. At some point, voters stopped trusting Bush and essentially stopped listening to him. While Obama has a better handle on his base than GOP leaders, he is overly insulated by it. The president and his advisers rarely listen to advice beyond the self-fulfilling kind. Rather than change the culture of Washington as promised, Obama is a captive of it--in part because his liberal loyalists have convinced him that that the message he rode to power was a lie. They help to destroy his audacity to hope for change.

  • Just 42 percent of the public approves of Obama's performance, the lowest recorded by NBC/WSJ.
  • Likability has long been Obama's strength, but now fewer people view him favorably (41 percent) than unfavorably (45 percent).
  • Only 37 percent of the public considers Obamacare a good idea, versus 47 percent who see it as a bad idea.

The pollsters attribute the dramatic decline to a series of setbacks, including the NSA spying scandal, Syria's use of chemical weapons, the government shutdown, and the failed Obamacare rollout. In each case, the president stumbled and dissembled.

3) Partisans in both parties will never admit it, but the public is putting a pox on both houses.

  • 74 percent of Americans believe Congress is contributing to problems in Washington rather than solving them.
  • Only 22 percent think the nation is headed in the right direction. Two-thirds believe that the nation is in a "state of decline."
  • Just two of every 10 Americans think the economy will get better in the next year.
  • Only three of 10 Americans are optimistic about the future of the U.S. political system.
  • A majority of Americans don't identify with either party.

More from NJ: