Yesterday's NBC/WSJ poll cannot be characterized as anything less than earth-shatteringly catastrophic news for the Republicans and their tactic to hold government funding hostage in order to delay or defund the Affordable Care Act. Not only do a majority of Americans blame the GOP for the government shutdown (53% to 31% who blame the president), the Republican party's favorability dropped to 24%, and 70% say that the Republicans are playing politics with the government of the United States. And both Obama and Obamacare have gone up in popularity.
But the Republican party has bigger things to worry about than barely beating herpes in a popularity contest. They seem to have lost the larger debate on the role of government. The GOP's very own government shutdown boomeranged and convinced Americans, by a hefty margin, that we need more government, not less.
...by a 52-percent-to-44 percent difference, respondents believe the government should do more to solve problems. Back in June, the public was split, 48 percent to 48 percent, on whether the government should do more or less.This is a stunning reversal from Gallup's numbers just a year ago. Apparently, Americans no longer believe Reagan's mantra about the nine most frightening words in the English language.
The GOP has sold the "small government" snake oil for a rather extended period of decades now in order to make people vote against their own best interest. The predominant reason Republicans have sold that snake oil, even while government has grown under Republican presidents at a far higher rate than under Democratic ones, is America's well-known rugged individualism, and aversion to and skepticism for government.
Make no mistake, that rugged individualism remains a central tenet of the American character. What has changed is that people are quickly realizing that government is actually an ally, rather an adversary, of individual success. Ironically, as a result of the GOP's shutdown, people are finding out that entrepreneuring restaurant owners are being hurt by the loss of business from furloughed federal workers and closed national parks.
They are discovering that shutting down the government locks out thousands of children from Head Start, a key initiative to ensure equal opportunity that is the bedrock of individual success. They are horrified that their friends and neighbors and family members who worked hard and put themselves through school do not know where their paycheck will come from despite having jobs to perform important civil society functions like inspecting the foods we all eat, responding to environmental disasters, and enforcing the rules of the road of the free market.
The Republican effort to convince people that government is an entity people are better off with as little as possible of actually convinced a small number of Americans exactly that. These true believers are known in modern America as the Tea Party. When they took over the Republican party's internal machinery in the wake of the election and administration of the nation's first African American president, the Republican party built a bubble around itself, convinced that since the government is really unnecessary and even counterproductive, a shutdown would in fact be a good thing. They said as much.
But it didn't turn out like that. It turns out that sometimes, nothing makes you appreciate something more than not having it (or part of it) for a while, and that holds true for government. The Republican shutdown has done something years of Democratic campaigning could not do: finally convincing a majority of Americans that government is a necessary good.
If the GOP isn't terrified of this, they should be. If the "small government" snake oil stops selling for good, the national debate will move on from whether government should take on an active role in civic life to exact what this active role will look like. That moves the debate out of the conservative frame and moves it decidedly into the progressive frame.
That represents a challenge to the GOP unlike most others. They are a party built - above all - on an idea that government should do less. Less taxing, less spending, less regulating, less helping people in need. That isn't just the Republicans' political philosophy; that is its moral underpinning. The party's existence rests on the idea that government help makes people lazy, and its most popular contemporary heroes are known for insinuating that government has overstepped its bounds by forcing public businesses to desegregate. Now that more than half of the country have decidedly taken a stand exactly to the contrary, the very survival of the Republican party is in question.
And isn't that what they have been fighting for through this economic suicide bombing posture - survival? After having their clocks cleaned in two consecutive presidential elections (and having lost the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections), they clung to power through undemocratic gerrymandering in the House, and the institution of the Affordable Care Act seemed the most symbolic of that wipeout. And so they waged a fierce but self-defeating battle to take it down.
They lost. Badly. And with that battle, they have now lost the war on the most fundamental question on role of government.