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Congress takes the year off

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
February 28, 2014 -- Updated 2106 GMT (0506 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: It's a given that Congress does little approaching an election
  • She says it appears that in 2014, Congress will do even less than normal
  • GOP is betting that it can win on Obamacare criticism, but what if that doesn't work, she asks
  • Boehner snubs tax reform; Obama drops Social Security changes

(CNN) -- It's a political axiom that the closer Congress gets to an election, the less work it gets done.

But here's the current math: what's less than nothing? And if you do even less than nothing, at what point does it become completely counterproductive and silly?

We've reached it.

Have you noticed lately that real ideas are out of vogue? A serious GOP committee chairman makes a big — and, yes, controversial -- proposal to reform the tax code. Here's how his ultimate leader, House Speaker John Boehner, reacts when asked about parts of the plan: "Blah, blah, blah blah." No kidding.

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

The President, who once endorsed an idea to change the way Social Security benefits are calculated as a way to curb its growth, has now said "Never mind." It won't be in his budget, for fear that his liberal base would desert him over it.

Republicans, who started the year saying that immigration reform should be on the agenda, are now saying, as the speaker put it, the President can't be "trusted" to implement any serious measure. And Democrats say the President can't be trusted to do a trade agreement without angering the important constituency of organized labor, so bye-bye "fast track" trade bill.

Bill to help veterans fails

Truth is, it isn't about trust at all. It's about winning in 2014. And an important part of winning, it seems, is to paper over all dissent within your own party in order to present a united front to the voters.

Borger on 'less than nothing' Congress
Boehner's 'about face' on immigration
Reid: Dems shoudn't fear Obama

So the election will be this: Us or them? Obamacare or no Obamacare? Do you like me better? Do you like government? Do you like poor people or rich people?

That's our debate -- the sum total of our big ideas right now. Not wanting to start any fights within your own party. Unity above all heading into the midterm elections.

So maybe Congress should just close up shop and leave town because nothing is going to happen for the next nine months. Just turn off the lights. Both parties are making the same political calculation for the same reason: They can't afford to have any internal debate lest they seem less than united against the enemy. Turns out that the permanent campaign is still alive and well.

Here's the glitch in this narrative: Voters, it turns out, actually want some solutions to problems. They want to see the deficit go down; they want to find a way to fix immigration. A majority (63%) is worried the country is on the wrong track. And, according to a new CBS/New York Times poll, eight in 10 Americans are fed up with Washington.

Somehow, voters haven't gotten the message that Congress -- in its steadfast intent to accomplish nothing -- is just trying to appeal to them.

But remember what happened to Mitt Romney's campaign. Romney lost for lots of reasons, but one of them was sticking too long to the assumption that if people were unhappy with the direction of the country and the other guy, that would be enough to win. It wasn't. The candidate mattered. And ideas mattered, too.

The "big" GOP idea this time is to bash Obamacare, relentlessly, endlessly, in a continual loop. Sure, it's unpopular, but what about if it starts working for people? What if people are sick of hearing about it now that the website is working? And what if people are more inclined to mend it than end it?

If Obamacare is the only trick in the bag, it might not be enough.

Then there's the Democrats' income inequality refrain. It's not new, it can work, and sure, it unites the Democrats. But by taking almost everything of substance off the table, it's the President's legacy and record of achievement that gets compromised, along with the voters.

The truth is this: It's a tight political fight. Polls right now show that the public, by a small 42%-39% margin, would back Republicans for office in the 2014 midterm elections. They're not thrilled with the President's job performance. They have soured on the President personally, and they can barely stomach the Congress.

So what's the political solution? No substance, no ideas, no serious debate that might actually engage voters. Each side suits up, armed with its slogans and its bromides.

And we inevitably re-elect the Congress we hate.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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