It’s easy to blame Donald Trump for the disarray of the Republican legislative agenda. After all, he is an unusually inept president. But Trump is not the cause of the current Republican crisis, more like a side effect. Some leading members are starting to get the message.
Some excellent reporting from the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins tells us that Republican campaign operatives “are mystified — and alarmed — by the fact that not even Donald ‘Drain the Swamp’ Trump had enough populist cred to swing a primary race to his candidate in deep-red Alabama,” where Christian conservative Roy Moore defeated mainstream conservative incumbent Luther Strange. Coppins quotes one Republican strategist who worries that:
No one can predict how the roiling anger in the conservative electorate will manifest itself during next year’s midterms—but it’s unlikely it will subside anytime soon. “We need to be honest about the fact that there are some powerful people inside the Republican Party who have no interest in governing,” he told me. “They’re focused like a laser on decapitating the party’s leadership, and have no interest in growing the party’s base into a lasting majority.” The resulting dysfunction, he said, will only further inflame voters’ frustrations.
All of this is correct, but it’s also not new, and wasn’t new when Tea Party activists were rallying against President Barack Obama and also against mainstream Republican leaders. Indeed, the nihilist message of unfocused resentment — sent by a different set of Republican leaders — dates back to at least Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, but has had a firm hold on the party since the George H.W. Bush administration, when then-backbencher Newt Gingrich and Republican-aligned media, most notably Rush Limbaugh, rose to prominence in the party with exactly that message.”
(Related: Everyone Knew Trump Would Win All Along)
Decapitating the party’s leadership” goes back to Oct. 5, 1990, when a revolt against the first President Bush and congressional Republican leaders led to the initial defeat of a budget deal and the subsequent elevation of Gingrich to House Republican Whip and then Speaker of the House.
Gingrich, of course, was victim of a decapitation himself, as was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott a few years later and Speaker John Boehner more recently.
The hallmark of all this dysfunction is a political party that is rarely interested in, and increasingly unable, to articulate and enact public policy — a post-policy Republican Party. The results were easiest to see in health care, with Republicans way more excited about finding a slogan to run on (Repeal and Replace!) than in actually coming up with substantive proposals for what to do about U.S. health care. But it’s visible almost across the board.
Think, for example, about the question about the next chair of the Fed. Democrats have strong views on what the Fed should do. Some Republican specialists and Republican interest groups have strong views. But most Republican politicians are just not engaged enough to have opinions. And the president himself, as usual, is almost a random policy generator.