Scorched-Earth Stalemate

Looks like President Obama is in for a rough finish, but amid all the inaction, there may be a silver lining

The University of Washington recently advised students that, after September, the university will no longer offer a health care plan to them. Students, therefore, must sign up for new policies through the state exchanges. Critics of the Affordable Care Act have hit the hustings with, "Ah-ha! See, just one more piece of evidence that Obamacare isn't working!"

This news comes at the same time we get reports that the millennial generation is losing faith in the president. Columnists tell us that the root cause that Democrats up for re-election are running scared — and that the millennials are disaffected — is anger over the ACA.

In fact, regardless of the issues, two-term presidents have historically lost much ground in their final two years. By my count, Theodore Roosevelt gained three seats in the Senate but lost 28 in the House. Woodrow Wilson lost six in the Senate, 19 in the House. Even Dwight Eisenhower took a beating, losing 13 in the Senate, 48 in the House. Ronald Reagan? He did somewhat better: He lost eight in the Senate but only five in the House. Bill Clinton? The Senate played to a draw, but the Republicans still controlled it. And in the House, Clinton beat the odds and picked up four seats. George W. Bush lost six seats in the Senate and 32 in the House.

Despite that weight of history — not to mention President Obama's own particular set of problems — it's still surprising that this Republican Congress could be sending Democrats running for the hills. Sporting single-digit approval ratings, the Republican-led House has produced a record of unmatched futility. They closed down the government; they failed to deal with the most pressing issues, such as immigration reform; they barely got a farm bill out; but they have found time for such worthless pastimes as Benghazi and defunding Obamacare.

As noted above, many observers tell us that the trail leads to the ACA. I think there's more to the story.

As in 2010, the 2014 election will be all about turnout, and the millennials are feeling ignored, overlooked and dismissed. It isn't that they'll vote for Republicans: they won't. The question — as it was in 2010 — is whether they'll vote at all.

They're right to feel alienated: As early as the spring of 2009, Obama had stopped talking to his younger constituents. There they were, in the wake of the crash of 2008, with college loans to begin paying off, but no jobs. It was an entire generation at risk of falling off the economic radar screen, yet Obama said... nothing.

By that time, it had become clear that Obama had no inner Pete Carroll to channel to rally his supporters like some kind of vast 12th Man. It's true that they voted in 2012, but presidential elections serve to expose the major differences, and they weren't about to vote for Mitt Romney. But an off-year election? That's a different story.

Obama's shortcomings on dealing with the issues our young people face shouldn't let the Republicans off the hook. Their endless drumbeat against institutions of government, against equality, against women's rights, against immigration reform, against health care reform, against sane environmental regulations — all those issues have become functionally impossible to solve on this Congress' watch.

In retrospect, it all started with the issue of health care reform. In 2009, the Republicans couldn't even agree with Obama on the definition of the obvious problem. That is: America needed some form of universal health coverage; America was spending too much of its GDP on health care; and the actual results we were getting — in life expectancy and other measures of health — were shockingly bad for the money we had been spending.

We needed agreement at least on these obvious facts, but it was not to be. Thus, no useful exploration and constructive debate about, for example, what could be taken from the Nixon plan — and, yes, he had plans for health care. What about the Clinton plan? Or what Romney did in Massachusetts? Nope, not to be, given that the Republicans' only agenda was to deny Obama a second term; their strategy, to marshal all the demagoguery necessary to pull it off.

But all this gloom and doom aside, it could well be that the very worst thing the Republican Party could do this year would be winning back the Senate. They wouldn't have a veto-proof Senate, but if they take control of both the House and the Senate, they will be held responsible if they stay true to form and spend the following two years sitting on their hands.

If this happens, Democrats would then be well advised to haul out the 1948 Harry Truman playbook for 2016 and make the election all about that do-nothing Congress.

(A final note: The UW has done its own calculations and determined that students will get a better deal on the exchanges.) ♦

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.