This year the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate made a strategic decision not to pass a budget for the federal government. They feared their spending priorities might not win the approval of voters in November's elections, so they simply opted out of their budgetary responsibility.
More recently, the Democratic leadership made a strategic decision not to decide whether to extend the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire Dec. 31. If nothing is done, taxes will rise for every American who pays income tax. But, as with the budget, Democrats worried that raising at least some taxes might not win voter approval, so they left the most pressing economic decision of the moment unresolved.
Finally, last Friday, Democrats in the House invited comedian Stephen Colbert to testify, in character as a buffoonish right-wing anchorman, before an otherwise serious hearing on migrant farm workers. Given the gravity of the topic, and of the country's economic situation in general, the performance was so off-key that even Democratic leaders called it inappropriate.
What do those disparate events have in common? In matters large and small, the actions of Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have created what could be the question of the final weeks of the campaign: Are Democrats really serious about running Congress?
Wouldn't a party that is serious about running Congress at least try to pass a budget? Wouldn't a party that is serious about running Congress at least try to avert the chaos of a last-minute, across-the-board tax increase? And wouldn't a party that is serious about running Congress think twice before going along with a high-profile mockery of Congress itself?
As the elections approach, the Colbert fiasco has given Republicans an unexpected framework for talking about the basic unseriousness of the last six months of Democratic rule on Capitol Hill. "They've got time to bring a comedian to Washington, D.C, but they don't have time to eliminate the uncertainty by extending all of the current tax rates," said House Republican Leader John Boehner on "Fox News Sunday". "I think that's irresponsible."
"Rather than addressing the floundering economy or the looming tax hikes on the middle class and small businesses, all Democrats showed the American people with this stunt is how out of touch they are," the Republican National Committee wrote in introducing a quickie video entitled "The Colbert Congress."
From there, it's not hard to make the case that when it comes to governing, a lack of seriousness can have serious effects. This year's budget resolution, for example, "has never been reported out of committee, never been brought to the floor," says a House GOP aide. "There have been multiple times when there was not a final agreement between the House and Senate on a budget, but never before, at least in the modern budgeting era, has the House not passed a budget." Until now.
And as the days without a budget tick by, Democrats appear too timid to explain to voters why they're not doing what they should be doing. "Part of the reason they didn't want to lay out the budget is that they didn't want to lay out where they were going to take taxes and spending in the next few years," says a GOP strategist. "Any time they have to lay out the direction they intend to go, they believe it will be politically detrimental to the continuation of the Democratic majority."
Democrats will no doubt argue that Republicans proved their own unworthiness to govern when they controlled Congress from 1994 to 2006. But the "let's go forward, not back" message isn't resonating with today's voters. In a recent paper, Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg and James Carville called it the "weakest message" in the party's playbook: "Because a 'go forward' framework implies that Democrats and Congress have made progress [that] voters do not feel, the message reinforces the Republican framework for the election -- a referendum on the Democrats' performance on the economy."
For the great majority of American voters, the economy is the most serious issue there is. They want their leaders to come up with serious plans to create jobs and economic growth. When they see the party in control of Congress dodging even the most basic responsibilities of governing, while at the same time staging high-profile stunts with no larger goal than attracting cameras and attention -- that's when voters might well conclude that those leaders simply aren't serious, and that it's time for a change.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.