At the beginning of 2013, Obama and his Democrat party were in firm control of the nation’s political terrain. Obama had won a convincing reelection by again boosting turnout of his young and minority voter base. Contrary to expectations, the Democrats gained two seats in the Senate, extending their control of the chamber, and made modest gains in the House. The Republicans, after squandered an almost unprecedented opportunity, were have something of an existential crisis. What a difference a year makes.
Not only did 2013 see a resurgence of the Republican party, it provided a number of political surprises throughout the year. The following were the biggest surprises of the year.
5. The Collapse of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)
At the beginning of the year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) seemed the frontrunner for the GOP nomination in 2016. A poll of Iowa Republicans in January showed him with a commanding lead with a crowded field, running ahead of his closest competitor, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), by over eight points. In December, however, Rubio polled 8th in Iowa, garnering support from just 6% of Republicans in the state. In national polls, he polls around 6th place. It is a breathtaking political collapse.
Rubio’s political fortunes were reversed by a fundamental misreading of the electorate on immigration reform. There is a robust case to be made for reforming our nation’s immigration system. The approach adopted by the Senate and promoted by Rubio, however, is arguably worse than the current system. It provides immediate legalization for 11 million illegal immigrants and effectively does almost nothing to secure the border. Even the modest security provisions in the bill would likely be ignored by the Obama Administration, which has ignored existing Congressional directives related to the border.
Like amnesty legislation in 1986, it provides legalization with a promise of security that will likely never materialize. Also like the deal in 1986, it will likely provide an incentive for even greater illegal immigration in the future. The GOP establishment and its business allies may still approve immigration reform in 2014, but Rubio’s political standing is unlikely to return.
4. The ObamaCare Rollout Disaster
I always expected ObamaCare to ultimately be a failure. I did not anticipate, however, the smoldering wreckage that was its rollout. The government simply had to build a website with no more complexity than Amazon or any other e-commerce site. It also had hundreds of millions of dollars and three years to build it. Even the government didn’t seem incompetent enough to screw that up.
Oh, but it did.
Even more surprising was the very slow response of the Obama Administration to the obvious disaster. Subsequent reports have detailed several warnings to government officials that the website wasn’t ready to launch, wasn’t secure, and wasn’t even accessible. Did no one take these remotely seriously? Did they think unicorns and pixie dust would mask these failures?
In October, in the aftermath of the government shutdown, Democrats led the generic congressional ballot by eight points. In the wake of the ObamaCare rollout disaster, Republicans have gained an unprecedented 13 points and now lead Democrats by 5.
3. The GOP’s War on Its Base
Inexplicably, the Republican party establishment reacted to its defeats in 2012 by declaring war on its base, conservative voters. Party officials and strategists blamed their defeat on the “tea party” and conservatives, who presumably turned off more “moderate” voters. The problem with this narrative is that the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, won Independents by five points. Republicans lost because the Democrats did a better job turning out their base voters. For the past two elections, the GOP has given its nomination to the most “moderate” candidate running. It is clearly not a recipe for success.
In the past few years, there have been some candidates with strong tea party backing who in the end were flawed. There have been far more “establishment” candidates who also lost. Todd Aiken won the GOP primary in Missouri because the tea party was divided between two other candidates. Richard Lugar had the edge over eventual nominee Richard Mourdock, until it was revealed that Lugar didn’t have an actual residence in his state. At least make a pretense of representing a state. At least six “establishment” and “electable” Senate candidates, enough to secure a majority, went down to defeat in 2012.
The party and its business allies, however, have vowed to challenge conservatives in primaries next year. The GOP establishment will no doubt be able to raise millions to wage this pyrrhic war, but it is hard to see how it will have the “boots on the ground” to win elections. It may very well spark its own destruction as a national political force.
2. Obama’s Irrelevance
Congress ended its year passing the first budget agreement in five years. Most surprising, though, is that it accomplished this because Obama wasn’t part of the negotiations. The Democrats’ lead negotiator, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), intentionally kept the White House out of the talks.
It was a dramatic turn around for a President who won a solid reelection just a year ago. At the start of 2013, Obama’s approval rating was nearly 60%. By a combination of political miscalculation and detachment, Obama has squandered all the political capital he won through his reelection.
He has made high-profile pushes for gun control, immigration reform, climate change and a higher minimum wage. Progress on these issues is arguably harder now than it was before Obama made them priorities.
In foreign policy, an area where second term presidents generally focus, Obama has led a withdrawal of the US from the world stage. America was a passive observer to the dramatic events in Egypt. Our absence allowed Russia to reassert its influence in the region for the first time in decades. China is expanding its influence throughout the world. Obama drew a line in the sand on Syria and then quickly retreated. His outreach to Iran has angered almost all of our allies. They don’t trust us and our enemies don’t fear us.
1. Obama’s Political Resilience
With his approval ratings at the lowest of his Presidency, it may seem counterintuitive to talk about Obama’s political resilience. Consider, however, what he has withstood this year.
We have learned that the government is engaged in comprehensive surveillance of Americans. The NSA tracks our web activity and even keeps records on every phone call we make. Worse, the Administration has lied about its activities repeatedly. The government even targeted reporters it suspected of working with government whistleblowers.
We also learned that the government was using the IRS to target its political opponents. This targeting went beyond supervision of tax-exempt groups and included audits of major Republican donors. When a cancer patient went public with the news that he was losing his health insurance as a result of ObamaCare, he quickly learned he was being audited by the IRS.
PoliticFact names Obama’s oft repeated promise that people can keep their health insurance the “lie of the year.” Millions of Americans have lost their health insurance as a result of his signature legislative achievement. The cancellation of these policies and problems with the law’s implementation raise the real possibility that fewer Americans will have insurance when ObamaCare takes full effect on January 1st.
I could literally run through a half-dozen more issues, any one of which would cripple most presidencies. That’s even before considering the anemic economic “recovery.” Obama does currently have the lowest approval rating of any 2-term President, at this point, since Richard Nixon. Still, between 40-42% of the public approves of the job he is doing. How is this even possible?
The most surprising thing about 2013 is that Obama has absorbed more negative shocks than almost all modern-day presidents combined and yet is still supported by only a little less than half the public. Even his currently low approval ratings defy gravity.
Something’s got to give next year.