I recently brought my two-year-old son to see the National Christmas Tree, which resides on the Ellipse, just south of the White House. At 26 feet and 4 inches, it's big but honestly somewhat underwhelming, having replaced a 42 foot spruce first planted during the Carter administration which was toppled by high winds in February (conservative metaphor alert!).
Fortunately my son didn't pay any mind to the tree's size, as he was held rapt by the model train sets arrayed around its base. He wasn't even especially concerned that one of the trains had gone off its rails and lay on its side in the grass.
Liberal metaphor alert: Before the National Christmas Tree lay the National Train Wreck. Is there a more apt analogy for the Tea Party Congress?
Take the drama this week focused on extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance. You know the contours: With overwhelming bipartisan support, the Senate passed a two-month extension in order to buy time to work out a longer-term agreement. House Speaker John Boehner reportedly called the bill a "good deal" and a "victory." But by the next day, Boehner's Tea Party-dominated caucus had yanked him back onto the reservation. The new party line was that a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday was simply insufficient, that only a full-year extension, a version of which the House had already passed, would be acceptable. (This despite the fact that as recently as 2009 more than 50 House Republicans were saying the way to "effectively stimulate" the economy was a payroll tax holiday of ... two months.)
Keep in mind that Republicans don't actually favor a full-year extension. For example, Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who chairs the House GOP's campaign committee, told the Los Angeles Times in September that it is a "horrible idea," adding that Republican House candidates would have no problem making the case for letting the tax cut expire altogether. It turns out they really do have a problem making that case, so last week they pivoted by passing their year-long extension, which had poison pill riders attached to it (drug testing for unemployment recipients, for example, because in this economy if you're jobless it must be because you're high). They apparently finally ran up the white flag yesterday, more or less accepting the Senate bill.
If this scenario seems familiar—House Republicans playing, as Florida GOP Rep. Thomas Rooney put it, "high stakes poker" in an effort to push their extremist agenda, with the stakes being the economy and people's livelihood—it is. We've seen this scenario play out again (see the near-government shutdown in April) and again (recall the unnecessary debt ceiling crisis in August). The big difference is that even Senate Republicans are fed up with their wild-eyed, Tea Partying House brethren. "It angers me that House Republicans would rather keep playing politics than find solutions," Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown said after the House voted Tuesday to reject the Senate's bipartisan bill. "Their actions will hurt American families and be detrimental to the fragile economy." Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller said the House maneuvering "is about political leverage."
Brown and Heller are the two Republican senators facing the toughest re-elections next year and so by necessity have a keen sense of what independent voters want. That they are taking such strong stances distancing themselves from the House reflects the fact that swing voters have had it with the Tea Party House lurching from one manufactured crisis to the next. The fact that House Republicans finally surrendered to political reality is almost irrelevant—just the fact of contriving another fight reinforces the public's near-unanimous disapproval of Congress, its GOP members especially.
Only 11 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, according to a poll released this week by Gallup. That's lower than any such figure since Gallup started tracking congressional approval in 1974. For the year, Congress has an average approval rating of 17 percent, also a historic low. A Pew Research Center poll also released this week showed that 50 percent of voters (another record) believe that this Congress has accomplished less than other recent Congresses.
And this isn't a case of a pox on both parties. While Democrats are not liked, voters have a special distaste for the GOP, according to Pew. By almost two-to-one (40 percent to 23 percent) more voters blame Republican leaders than Democratic leaders for Congress's lack of accomplishment. Voters also see the GOP as being more extreme (53 to 33 percent), while they say Democrats are more willing to work with the other side (51 to 25 percent) and are "more honest and ethical" (45 to 28 percent).
The big beneficiary of the Tea Party Congress's tone deaf overreach, and specifically its incoherent approach to the payroll tax cut, has been President Obama. His job approval wallowed in the low 40s for the last few months, but polls released this week by ABC and CNN showed his rating ticking back up to 49 percent. "President Barack Obama's approval rating appears to be fueled by dramatic gains among middle-income Americans," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said. "The data suggest that the debate over the payroll tax is helping Obama's efforts to portray himself as the defender of the middle class."
Defending the middle class is the kind of political sweet spot which wins elections. To the extent House Republicans are not only ceding that ground but practically inviting Obama to occupy it, they are victims of a train wreck of their own devising.
And the wreck in front of the National Christmas Tree? As I looked on, another pair of visitors climbed the fence and set the train back on the tracks. I like to think voters will do the same next November.