Most prominent Republicans who aren’t Donald Trump or his shrinking cult of cranky old men know how to read polls. And right now, they’re scrambling to find a lifeboat before hitting the iceberg. For the GOP House and Senate candidates who are watching their leads slip away, this means running ads in which they tout their independence and “ability to work across the aisle,” while promising to serve as a “check and balance” on a Clinton White House.
Sure. I get the strategy. And yes, I do think there should be a strong, healthy opposition party to keep Democrats honest. I don’t think we’re always right, or that government can fix everything. I don’t want our foreign policy to go unchallenged, or our party to become the caricature depicted by some on the right and the left: corporatist, elitist, corrupt, and out of touch.
But the Republican Party can’t serve as a healthy opposition right now, because the Republican Party is no longer a functioning institution. Indeed, the most consequential truth of this entire nightmare of an election is that in 2016, the party of Lincoln and Reagan facilitated the nomination of an unstable demagogue for president of the United States.
There were, of course, some Republicans who decided early on to put country over party — the Bush family and Mitt Romney, senators Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake, governors John Kasich and Charlie Baker, and a handful of other politicians. I pray that more Democrats show this kind of courage when Kanye West wins our party’s nomination in 2024. (Kidding. I hope.)
Still, even as many elected Republicans privately express horror over Trump’s candidacy, most remain publicly supportive or noncommittal, fearful of angering the Trump supporters whose votes they believe are necessary to advance their political careers and agendas.
It’s a calculation that’s chilling, but not all that surprising when you consider Republican politics in the Obama era. After George W. Bush left office with a near–30 percent approval rating, the party’s center of power and influence shifted from elected officials to media activists like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and the Breitbart crew, who kept their audiences enraged with a business model based on grievance, resentment, and bizarre conspiracies. They didn’t just target Democrats, but any Republican who even contemplated compromising with Democrats, a sin that often led to a primary challenge.
For eight years, nearly every decision made by Republican lawmakers has been motivated by a paralyzing fear of a base whose news diet has become completely detached from reality. The right-wing media didn’t make an argument that the Affordable Care Act contained too many regulations, they said it contained grandparent-murdering death panels. They didn’t argue that climate change legislation was too costly for businesses, they said that climate change was a hoax. The debate about immigration reform devolved into talk of hordes of brown criminals pouring over the border. The push for background checks was reduced to warnings that Barack Obama planned to confiscate the guns of all law-abiding Americans.
Former speaker John Boehner wanted to pursue a “grand bargain” with the president on taxes and spending. But his base wanted to him to shut down the government and threaten to default on our debt — the one move that may have been more reckless than endorsing Trump. Boehner chose the base. In return, the base pushed him out of his job a few years later.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley made a big show of wanting to compromise on the Affordable Care Act. When months of negotiations and multiple concessions to Republicans went nowhere, the president asked Grassley, “Is there any form of health-care reform that you can support?” He admitted, “Probably not.”
This same dynamic is why Republicans put out a press release opposing the stimulus before they knew what was in the bill. It’s why Marco Rubio campaigned against his own bipartisan immigration reform bill. It’s why this is the first time in history that Congress is refusing to even have a hearing for an extremely qualified Supreme Court nominee. It’s why no Republican dares to compromise with Obama on just about anything — because to much of their base, he isn’t just a Democrat whose policies they oppose, but a Kenyan-born imposter whose presidency is illegitimate.
So yes, of course most Republican candidates haven’t had the courage to oppose Trump. And there’s no reason to think that if we send them to Congress, they’ll ever oppose the Trump-like impulses of the media activists who run their party — many of whom will also view Hillary Clinton as an illegitimate president, saved from jail by Barack Obama’s rigged FBI.
A Trump loss doesn’t mean that the GOP fever will break. Just last week, Iowa radio host Steve Deace, who actually left the Republican Party because of what he called the “Trump cult,” tweeted the following: “To hold on to their congressional majorities, Republicans should promise voters they’ll impeach Hillary by 2018.” A few days ago, radio host Mark Levin called for impeachment as well.
Already, the same members of the House Freedom Caucus who ousted John Boehner are talking about doing the same to Paul Ryan for his supposed disloyalty to Donald Trump (hard not to laugh at this one). Even Senator John McCain recently promised four more years of blindly partisan obstruction: “I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton … would put up.”
A Hillary Clinton victory will save us from the existential threat of a Donald Trump presidency. But let’s not kid ourselves: There is almost no evidence to suggest that four more years of a Republican Congress will result in any kind of productivity, no matter how hard Hillary tries to reach across the aisle, or how much Republican leaders want to work with her. Radicals rule the GOP, and an embarrassing Trump defeat will only embolden them to push for more shutdowns, more default threats, more repeal votes, more obstruction, more investigations, and probably impeachment. The sane Republicans who oppose these tactics will be threatened with primary challengers in 2018 (a year when the map heavily favors the GOP anyway) — and if the past is any guide, most of them will simply give in.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama understand this reality. It’s why they’re campaigning so intensely in these final weeks for Democratic congressional candidates up and down the ballot. Winning back the Senate (Democrats need only three of the seven toss-ups in Nevada, Florida, Missouri, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire) is far more likely than taking back the House (Democrats need to win 30 of an estimated 33 competitive seats), but even a narrowed margin in that chamber would improve the chances that a President Clinton could reach the compromises necessary to pass some of her agenda, whether it’s fixing the Affordable Care Act, investing in infrastructure, reforming immigration, or expanding child care and paid family leave.
For the good of the country, I’m pulling for reasonable Republicans to win their party’s coming civil war, even if that means Democrats will face formidable candidates in the future. For now, however, it’s clear that most of the party has been unable or unwilling to stand up to the radical forces that led to Trump. Until they do, giving Republicans power over any branch of government is a recipe for a dangerous cocktail: gridlock, dysfunction, and maybe something worse.