WASHINGTON -- Maybe congressional Democrats should just send their GOP colleagues a thank-you note.
After a month during which Congress failed to make any progress on funding the government, an attempt to protect the Confederate flag killed an appropriations bill and hard-line Republicans in both the House (Rep. Mark Meadows) and Senate (Sen. Ted Cruz) openly challenged their leaders' integrity and ability, Democrats didn't have to work hard to portray themselves as the responsible ones as lawmakers headed into their summer break.
The House is leaving town this week until after Labor Day, and the Senate will follow suit the week after. With the debt limit, government funding, a vote on the Iran nuclear deal, long-term highway funding and more all waiting for action in September, it's no surprise that Democrats seldom missed the chance to point out the GOP's problems during recent public appearances and a series of interviews with The Huffington Post.
"If Republicans continue to follow the hard right -- Donald Trump, Ted Cruz -- they're going to fall right off a political cliff," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a news conference Thursday after the Senate was forced to pass a stopgap measure to fund highways. "And sadly, that looks like where we're headed."
It's not without a certain amount of glee that Democrats are making such statements. Traditionally, when a party is in the minority in Congress, it relies on negotiation and, often, obstruction to protect its constituents' interests -- as Senate Republicans showed for six years of Barack Obama's presidency. But obstruction has a downside, and poll after poll has shown that the public generally blames Republicans for mucking up the gears of government.
Now, as the minority party, Democrats don't want to take on that mantle. Republicans are assuring they won't have to.
Even though it is Democrats in the Senate who have blocked every appropriations bill from advancing, they can easily point a finger at the GOP, which has passed a budget that ignores most Democratic priorities while boosting defense spending. That's a big departure from the 50-50 approach to budget cuts that Congress followed in the four years after the 2011 Budget Control Act imposed sequestration cuts.
The public at large might not be aware of obscure facts like which side supports what spending ratio. But it's hard to miss the vocal conservatives like Cruz, who tied the Senate in knots for nearly two weeks during the highway bill debate while accusing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of being a liar -- all for the crime of allowing a vote to preserve a federal agency that helps U.S. firms export products. House Republicans seemed to agree with Cruz, with Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) calling the Senate's highway bill a "piece of shit."
The internal drama was not lost on Democrats. "The Republicans in the House do not agree with the Republicans in the Senate," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told HuffPost. "So you have another, sort of once again, inside-the-party debate. And I said to a friend, with apologies to the elephants, 'When the elephants lock tusks, it's never dull.'"
Indeed. And then there was the contingent of Southern conservatives in the House who insisted on an amendment that would keep Confederate flags waving on gravestones in federal cemeteries. Boehner had to pull the entire bill, which would have provided funding for the Interior Department.
This week even saw another GOP threat to shut down the government. Amid the furor over a series of edited videos about Planned Parenthood's fetal tissue donation program, conservatives are calling to defund the group. The Senate will vote Monday on a defunding measure, but since Democrats will be able to block it, there are already calls to attach the provision to some other piece of must-pass legislation.
And yes, that could be the legislation that funds the government. It's the same thing conservatives did two years ago when they attached a measure defunding Obamacare to federal appropriations legislation. That resulted in the government shutting down for more than two weeks. And yes, the GOP got the blame.
For Democrats, the highway bill was the perfect encapsulation of the problem. Lawmakers on all sides claimed they wanted to end the practice of resorting to short-term patches for road and transit spending, and finally pass a long-term bill instead. Yet after the Cruz rebellion -- and the House's refusal to entertain the six-year Senate plan -- they wound up with the 34th consecutive stopgap, a three-month bill that expires in October.
"I'm not going to defend it," Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told HuffPost. "If you're looking for me to explain the rationale behind all this, there is none. This is a great example of the complete inability of this Republican Congress to govern and solve problems, and it's primarily because they're fighting among themselves."
Outside observers say it's clear why Democrats would be eager to rail against the GOP.
"The Republican Congress has shown itself to be, almost without exception, incapable of doing the people's business, at least when it it comes to important business," said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at New York's Baruch College. "There is a real failure, not just of the party leaders, but of the membership."
Democrats can't outwardly show excitement at an ineffectual government, but the GOP's dysfunction does present an opportunity to offer themselves to the public as the better option.
"C'mon. They are probably as gleeful as you can imagine without breaking into dance," Muzzio said.
Laura Barron-Lopez contributed reporting.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.