If you look at the mythical political scoreboard in Washington the Republicans are in the lead and therefore appear to be winning. They control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives (by a wide margin). (For the sake of this “exercise” I won’t delve into the Supreme Court.) Not so fast. Let’s explore.
In the aftermath of their disastrous defeat in the 2008 election the Republican Party appeared to be on the brink of either collapse or at least becoming a marginal regional political party. In reaction to the election of an African-American President a vocal minority arose. Despite all their denials to the contrary, their primary motivation was racism. The Republican Party’s structural establishment saw a bunch of motivated voters who they needed. Their secondary motivation was that they didn’t want to pay taxes; that dovetailed with big Republican donors. The big GOP financiers, led by the Koch brothers, saw a low information group that if harnessed could resurrect the Republicans’ chances at the polls. Those elected Republicans would be more beholden than ever and would be happy to gut regulations and stifle the enforcement of the ones they couldn’t stop or repeal.
Fast forward to 2016 and the whole thing has gotten out of control. The GOP establishment wanted a regular Republican standard bearer with which to knock of Hillary Clinton in the general election; say Jeb Bush. The problem was the inmates had already taken over the asylum and they ended up with a nominal Republican at best in Donald Trump. Then Trump pulled the greatest upset in American presidential politics and ended up getting elected. On paper the Republicans control the White House but Trump is far from “one of the boys”.
Signs of the takeover had been around for some time. John Boehner had achieved his political lifelong dream of becoming Speaker of the House only to quit because his caucus was more of a coalition of Tea Party radicals and true conservative Republicans. (Boehner was the only survivor from Newt Gingrich’s old crew.) Time and again Boehner would strike a compromise deal with then President Obama only to have the radical portion of his conference reject it. To them the word “compromise” was an obscenity. The American Constitution – which the radicals claimed to love but obviously hadn’t comprehended when they read it – is nothing if not a collection of compromises. Imperfect as it is it has served us well for well over two decades with minimal amending. Paul Ryan succeeded Boehner and hasn’t really fared much better.
The Republicans finally regained control of the Senate with this Congress and in their first six months haven’t been able to pass a single piece of major legislation. As always there are a few “colorful individuals” (i.e. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky) and a few people who don’t belong but rode a Tea Party wave to their seats (i.e. Joni Ernst of Iowa) but for the most part Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t had nearly the challenges his House counterparts endure.
Where the radicals’ power has really been felt is in the primaries. Most Congressional Districts and several states are essentially a one Party race; if you win the primary you are all but elected if your Party controls the turf. A primary from the right is the biggest fear of many Congressional Republicans. Also primaries cost money. Most politicians don’t like raising money. Even the few that do would prefer to “spread it around” so as to increase their power base as opposed to spending it on political survival.
At this point, having to contend with Trump I have to wonder how many Republicans privately envy the Democrats’ Super Delegate system which they publically denigrate? In such a system there never would have been a President Trump.
That was a long winding setup to bring me to today. Trump is out of control and wants to take yet another shot at repealing Obamacare just so that he can claim a legislative victory. Senator John McCain (with help from Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) effectively killed that effort last week. In the process he may have saved the Republican Party from it itself. Had the plan proceeded and eventually been successful it would have taken health care away from tens of millions. Many of them would have been the sheep that the radical movement has been herding to the polls to vote Republican. Eventually they would have woke up (or died) and stopped voting Republican, probably for generations. Trumpcare could have been the electoral equivalent of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. Actually it would have been more devastating for the Republicans. With the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 the Democrats solidified the black vote albeit at the cost of alienating white southerners. There is no similar “up for grabs” constituency in Obamacare repeal.
John McCain is another key player to pay attention to on the Trump watch. Unlike Mitch McConnell he is not beholden to Trump; McCain actually cares about the futures of America and the Republican Party. Remember it was Arizona Senator and former Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater who led the delegation of senior Republicans to the White House to tell Ricard Nixon that it was over. History has that pesky way of repeating itself.
Having coached basketball for many years I endured more than one game where late in the game the scoreboard showed my team ahead but I knew that considering situation, possession and momentum my guys had their hands full at the least. I hoped for that one leader on the floor to take control of the game and lead us to victory. Is John McCain that veteran player for the Republicans?
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