Republicans are heading to November’s White House loss for one overarching reason. They decided to do nothing controversial, to play it safe, and to make sure, above all else, that they were not disliked. The result is a party that was perceived by many of its early tea party supporters as cowardly, unwilling to hold Barack Obama accountable, and too beholden to special interests instead of willing to keep promises. The Mitch McConnell “play it safe and don’t rock the boat” approach has thrown the GOP into the rapids and is about to cause the party boat to capsize.
The government shutdown in 2013 really exposed the GOP. They quickly threw Ted Cruz under the bus and pointed the finger at him. “Not us. Him!” they said. The all star panel on Special Report on Fox and the Republican pundits on CNN and elsewhere dutifully parroted Mitch McConnell’s talking points blaming Cruz. The Wall Street Journal declared there was no establishment and Cruz was a vainglorious oaf hell bent on the GOP’s destruction. Then they promptly surrendered on the debt ceiling fight handing the President a blank check to raise the debt.
I remember when John Cornyn threatened a government shutdown over the debt ceiling. How dare the party faithful think he really intended to fight. I remember Mitch McConnell telling voters that if you gave them the Senate they’d stop executive amnesty. There were no footnotes about vetoes and overrides or plans to punt to the federal courts. There were, however, a series of moving goal posts designed to obfuscate, walk back, and minimize every campaign promise made. And anyone who dared demand they keep their promises was excoriated by the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
When not collaborating on amnesty, Republicans were passing the buck to the court system to stop the President. As the goal posts were moved, talking points were enforced. “Remember the Gingrich era shutdown and how badly we lost seats,” they said hoping everyone would ignore that they actually didn’t lose badly. “Yes, remember the shutdown in the 90’s,” parroted the talking heads.
They’d campaign on stoping amnesty by executive order and holding the President accountable, but then they’d get back to Washington and say the President has a veto power they can’t override and if they dare use the power of the purse he’d shut down the government and they’d all get the blame, but really it would all be Ted Cruz’s fault because he’s not a team player. “Silly, filthy hobbits,” their media allies would say, “you just aren’t smart enough to know how this all works. We have to trust Mitch and the toe tapping congressmen from Union Station.” Of course, now they will say executive amnesty was stopped. Yes, but only because the right judge got selected in a district court in Texas, not because of them.
In 2014, despite all the hysteria that Ted Cruz was going to make the GOP disliked, the GOP won again. In fact, in the Age of Obama the GOP has won and kept on winning virtually everything other than the White House. But still the GOP doesn’t want to be disliked. Still the GOP refuses to stand up to Barack Obama.
Eventually, the base of the party got frustrated. That frustrated base was joined by a group of political outsiders not really affiliated with either party who finally had enough of both parties. They all felt desperate and betrayed. The felt like their very culture and way of life was under assault by a Washington elite who did not care about them, could not relate to them, and decided they were all hateful bigots who couldn’t write checks anyway. Desperate times call for desperate measures. So they turned to Donald Trump to burn down Washington. The Republican voters who sided with Trump early, when asked why they liked Trump, knew very little about him, but they said, “He fights!” That became the joke. Trump is a Clinton donor, pro-abortion New Yorker who bragged about his affairs, but “he fights!”
Trump isn’t interested in being liked or loved. He’s interested in fighting and being blunt. At least that is how voters perceive him. It is worth noting too that for a time the very establishment Trump’s voters want burned to the ground rallied to Trump. Behind the scenes, D.C. lobbyists, Senate Republicans, and Republican outside groups heaped praise on Trump as a way to stick it to Ted Cruz. They wanted Trump over Cruz. When it became Cruz vs. Trump, they demanded Cruz kiss McConnell’s ring if they were going to act. He refused so they decided they could accept Trump. They decided they could work with Trump, but could not and would never work with Cruz. Now they attack Cruz for failing to endorse the man they all privately hope loses to Hillary. And privately they worry that Trump, who they now realize they cannot control and who will never pivot, is going to cost them the power they’ve tried to horde by doing nothing and standing still.
That makes this coming loss so ironic. The GOP is going to lose with Trump because its leaders were too scared to stand for anything and refused to stand with the only candidate who, in the end, had a shot at stopping Trump. By standing for nothing, they got stood up by their voters and stomped into the dust by Trump. The only question that remains is this: after the loss, will the GOP learn the right lessons?
I suspect not. The party leaders and their editorial mouthpieces still cannot even acknowledge that there is both an elite and an establishment within the party. The talking heads of Fox who are long tied to guys like McConnell and the editorialists at the Wall Street Journal who openly disdain heartland voters both deny there is an establishment.
There is an old saying that every group has a jackass. If you don’t think the group you affiliate with has a jackass, then you’re the jackass. Of course the Republican establishment doesn’t recognize there is an establishment. They just see it as the cocktail circuit and the green room friends. They will again rally to the brilliant strategery of Mitch McConnell that got them in this mess in the first place. They will ignore that Republicans have a lower opinion of congress right now than Democrats and that congress’s popularity has gone up because it is not in Washington right now.
Until they figure it out, the desire to be liked will trump (pun intended) the desire to hold the President accountable through any and all means necessary. And that will just perpetuate the helplessness of a lot of people with real needs and fears who want a political party to stop wanting to be liked and start leading. Perpetuating that, in turn, leads even further down the rabbit hole of anger in the voting population.
When a voting base thinks they are on the brink of disaster, in large part because of the rhetoric of elected Republican leaders, a play it safe strategy is just asking to be curb stomped.