Big Government Has Damaged Its Brand

by David French

As the new NBC/WSJ poll indicates, the public-relations phase of this current fight seems to have taken a rather sharp negative turn for Republicans — and for the key Republican leaders involved. I’m skeptical these numbers will have any ultimate impact on the mid-term elections (or the ultimate reelection prospects for Senators Cruz and Lee), but they’re certainly bad news, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. It’s always vital for conservatives to remember that while we have a much greater ability to communicate our message than we did in 1995, we can still sometimes live in our own media echo-chamber, and that stories that are common knowledge to us are either largely unknown by the wider public or communicated to that public by a media that loathes the very existence of the Tea Party or any other strand of conviction conservatism.

In other words, these polls are bad news, and we shouldn’t spin them as anything less.

At the same time, however, there is bad news for the Left — bad news that will take a bit longer to work its way through the body politic because it goes more to the general world view of our citizens than it does the winners and losers of any given political fight. Simply put, across two budget/debt-ceiling crises (2011 and 2013), and with the corresponding rollout of Obamacare, millions of even apolitical Americans are learning three truths about government that will hurt the Left in the long run.

First, we don’t need all the government we have. We’ve now been through two entire cycles of doomsaying, first over the sequester and next over the so-called shutdown, and twice now the doomsaying has proven to be almost comically overblown. Even as Republican approval ratings tank, let’s not forget that 80 percent of Americans have felt “no personal effect” from this latest alleged cataclysm. As for the sequester, well I daresay that most Americans barely even know what it is, much less have felt the slightest effect. News flash: We can shrink government, and the sun will still rise.

Second, elements of the government are malicious and spiteful. Of the 20 percent that have been affected by the shutdown, how many have been affected through pure malice? I know this is well-trod ground here in the Corner, but moving beyond the conservative echo-chamber, there were many, many Americans who experienced (or read about) truly needless government closings, saw absurd barricades closing open-air parks and even deserted scenic overlooks, and shook their heads in complete disbelief that the Penatagon couldn’t find the tiny amount of funds necessary to provide the most basic death benefits for America’s fallen. The government spent money to make Americans suffer. That will be remembered.

Third, the government can be staggeringly incompetent. Only 51,000 people have completed Obamacare applications in the first week of a very widely publicized operation? is barely functioning after spending more money to construct it than the combined costs of some of the most widely-trafficked and popular sites in the world? While examples of government incompetence are legion, given the sheer number of uninsured, Obamacare presents a problem that could well seep deep into the real-life experience of tens of millions of Americans. Republicans are fretting about losing a news cycle, but a news cycle pales in comparison to the real-world experience of Americans experiencing governmental disarray in one of the most important aspects of their lives — their health insurance.

As I said in NRO’s symposium, over the short term it’s hard to see the shutdown ending truly well for anyone in this fight, and it’s more likely to end with a whimper, not a bang. But if President Obama’s “victory” lies mainly in preserving the post-sequester status quo, there’s not much left of his second-term agenda. And when it comes to the role and value of our bloated government, I daresay the terms of cultural debate have shifted a notch or two in our favor. 

Polls matter, but the long game matters more, and the long game is looking pretty good.

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