Win or Lose, Republicans Are Still a Wreck
On the verge of victory in the midterm elections, the Republican Party looks no less shaky than it did on the verge of defeat in 2012. The base appears no less irate than at any other moment in the Obama era, and the party leadership's plans look no more coherent or calibrated to the times.
House Speaker John Boehner's policy speech last month at the American Enterprise Institute garnered little attention, perhaps because it was such a wee bitty thing, small and sad. (When your economic plan has five pillars and one is "tort reform," you are really asking more of the 1980s than a creaky bygone decade can deliver.) Even some conservative economists can't muster enthusiasm for the jumble of haphazard suggestions that constitute the party's "jobs" agenda.
Perhaps that's why my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru isn't ready to break out the champagne. I'm betting on a Republican victory, but I'm also betting that will be the high point of Republican control of Congress. They still haven't figured out whether a majority in both houses of Congress would require them to behave more responsibly, proving they can be competent, or more fanatically, showing they can better channel the base's rage. It's not clear that they will reach a conclusion soon.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told donors that if Republicans don't use the next Congress to "prove we could govern, there won't be a Republican president in 2016." Politico described McCarthy's agenda with this shorthand: "Legislative cliffs are over."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell begs to differ. He told Politico that his game plan entails passing high-stakes partisan legislation and daring President Barack Obama to veto it at the risk of, yes, shutting down the government:
"We're going to pass spending bills, and they're going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy," McConnell said in an interview aboard his campaign bus traveling through Western Kentucky coal country. "That's something he won't like, but that will be done. I guarantee it."
"A lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy" sounds like a diplomatic way of describing a war on Democratic constituencies, which suggests McConnell would come down on the side of the old Representative Paul Ryan, who wanted to strip the poor of benefits, and not the new Paul Ryan, who seems to think maybe that's unnecessary.
Conflict appears likely not only between House and Senate Republicans, but also within the Senate Republican caucus, which will include senators running for re-election in states including Illinois, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, which lean Democratic in presidential election years, and senators running for president, who will be constantly tempted to feed the base's appetite for outrage.
A Republican president, of course, could make much of this unseemly tension go away. President Marco Rubio or whoever could come into office, express horror at Obama's irresponsibility in allowing U.S. infrastructure to go to seed, and then initiate the kind of deficit-fueled spending that marked the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The Republican devotion to employment-killing spending cuts could be quickly forgotten, and Democrats would be left howling (something about hypocrisy, I suspect) into a cruel wind.
But without a Republican in the White House, which is the only known cure for any party's agitation, Republicans are caught between their base's hardened anger and the inflexible stances they have adopted to serve this master. Obama will continue to be both a foil and an excuse for Republicans' inability to return the nation to a glorious past. The president will suffer along with his opposition, of course. But starting Nov. 5, Republicans will gradually begin transferring the fear and loathing they lavish on the president to a new target: Hillary Clinton. It should be a very inspiring two years.
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Frank Wilkinson at email@example.com