“Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and Girls. Dying Time is Here…” — Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
By Justin Norris
As we watch the slowing moving car crash that is the Trump administration, and as we watch the GOP in Congress react to said car crash, it is important to remember a few important points.
First, Trump was never popular with most of the GOP elite writ large. Not just in Congress, but across the nation.
Second, like much of the country, it is doubtful that the GOP political establishment believed Trump was going to win the 2016 election.
Third, The Republican civil war was, and is, real.
When you take these things into account it goes a long way towards explaining the peculiar predicament we find ourselves in today. There was no real plan, and the political establishment for both parties are playing it by ear.
To lend some context here, we should discuss the nature of governance in the American political system. As any student of American politics can tell you, eliciting lasting change within the separation of powers system is difficult under the best of circumstances. Because of how our system is structured there are numerous choke points throughout the legislative process for which bills can die. Indeed, the most likely outcome for any given bill is an unceremonious death. If one has any hope of getting bills enacted into law it requires large enough political coalitions in both chambers of Congress to circumvent the many different choke points, and then it must get past presidential action. And things have only become more difficult as political polarization has increased in recent times.
Since the political parties have become increasingly ideologically homogenous, and because the political parties have moved farther apart both ideologically and politically unified government has become critical for the political parties if they have any hope of enacting their agendas. This is why the GOP elites have been willing thus far to seemingly ignore anything approaching principles. They know this may be their only real chance to push through their agenda for some time. So like any good political opportunists, and most of the denizens of Washington are political opportunists, they know they would be fools to not at least try to take advantage of the hand they’ve been dealt.
This is precisely why folks like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and much of the GOP rank and file in Congress have been willing to play along up to this point, and why most of them will continue to play along. They have their eyes on the prize.
Like all good cons, this includes a gamble. The GOP elite know that Trump is deeply unpopular. They also know that Trump is incompetent. They’re hoping that despite this they can get through much of their agenda before everything implodes. They hope that winning the legislative victories their political base so deeply craves will be sufficient to shore up enough political support as to withstand the likely backlash they will face in the 2018 midterm elections. And even if the majority does not survive the midterm, they will have at least moved the agenda forward and hopefully put some points on the board by making lasting policy changes.
As far as plans go in American politics this is not a bad one. Indeed, if these were normal times, and if this was a normal president, I’d say this plan would have better than fair odds of working.
But these aren’t normal times, and this isn’t a normal president.
Some people will read the preceding statements as partisan or ideological. I want to be crystal clear on this point. They are not. Yes, I absolutely have my own political preferences, but I am not discussing those preferences here.
If these were normal political conditions we would not have a sitting president with record low approval ratings for this point in a presidency. We are only a little more than 100 days in, and to date the president has fired an attorney general, fired a national security advisor, fired the head of the FBI, given code word intelligence to the Russians (in the White House no less), and if reporting is to be believed, the president is likely going to fire more members of White House staff by the end of the week. And these are only but a handful of the things that have happened thus far.
Within a little more than 100 days we have had John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, state in a public forum that things are starting to look a lot like Watergate. Jason Chaffetz, the epitome of political opportunism, and chair of the House oversight committee has gotten the Speaker of the House to sign on to a letter formally demanding that the FBI hand over all materials related to communications between former director Comey and the president.
This is not normal. Not by a long shot.
As previously stated, the Republicans in Congress knew Trump was inept. To be fair, Trump is, by all accounts a complete and total political amateur, so some ineptitude would likely be inevitable, even he had good instincts for governance. However, Trump has shown a shocking level of ignorance as it relates to the separation of powers system in general, and the nature of governance for the executive branch in particular. In other words, the GOP had no idea just how incompetent Trump really is. Nor did they know how petty and vindictive he really is. And they are all together unprepared to deal with it.
Another wrinkle in the plan is the lack of a plan. Since the GOP didn’t think they were going to win, they did not have any cohesive policy initiatives ready at the starting gate. Paul Ryan has had a list of talking points and unscored, half-baked, initiatives he has been selling for years, but none of them were ready for them to pull the trigger. This has left the GOP scrambling to cobble things together as they have gone. And the results have been disastrous.
Part of the reason the GOP was left flat footed stems from the nature of the GOP caucus in the House, and to a lesser extent, the nature of the GOP conference in the Senate. The GOP, especially in the House, has been fighting its own intraparty war for years now. Though it is cliché to say, the different party factions really do believe they are fighting for the soul of the Republican Party. For outsiders, the differences between the GOP factions may seem trivial, but for insiders they are deeply important, and within the more extreme factions there is a rallying cry for purity at all costs. In other words, there is a lot more disagreement among Republicans than many realize.
This conflict was apparent in the fight waged between House Republicans to get the healthcare bill through the House. The party nearly ripped itself to shreds getting the bill through to the Senate, and the resulting bill is so unpopular the Senate GOP essentially declared it DOA. And repealing and replacing Obamacare was supposed to be the easy part of the agenda. It will only get harder from there.
Despite this, the Republicans in Congress are still largely standing by the president, at least publicly, because they know they may not have this kind of opportunity again for some time. Trump may be deeply flawed but he is still the only viable political option they have at this juncture. But as the scandals deepen, and the drip, drip, drip of news stories continue, the likelihood of political derailment increases. And the longer this goes on, the harder it will become.
Which begs the question, what now?
As the public moves farther away from Trump, and as his unpopularity deepens, the likelihood that Trump will take the GOP down with him increases. The signs are already coming into place that the 2018 midterm elections could be disastrous for the GOP in Congress.
For example, despite flooding special elections with unheard of amounts of money Republicans have either narrowly held on to a seat that they normally carry by over 20 points, or the race has been forced into a runoff. The GOP will not be able to defend all of their districts this way in the midterm, and some analyses suggest that if the midterms were held today only between 100-150 ‘safe’ Republican seats could withstand the backlash.
Moreover, several credible polls have come out in the last two weeks suggesting that Democrats hold a double-digit lead in the so-called ‘generic ballot,’ a routine polling question asking respondents to either state their preference for who should run Congress or state which party they would vote for. One poll puts the gap at sixteen points. To put this in context, an eight to nine point gap often signals a defeat for the majority party.
However, the election is not being held tomorrow, and a week can be a lifetime in American politics, let alone almost two years. The Republicans have time, and unless things get worse, or even if they stay the same, the GOP in Congress will have little incentive to break away from the Trump administration for some time.
But what about Watergate? This is a question I’ve heard often in the last few days, and I readily admit that the comparison easily comes to mind. It is true that the Republicans in Congress turned against Nixon, and stood for the republic against their own president. However, it’s important to point out that the Republicans were the minority party at that time, and most Republicans did not turn against Nixon until the end, after two long years. Even still, some Republicans stood with Nixon to the bitter end. It is entirely possible that if Republicans controlled Congress the situation would have played out quite differently.
That being said, cracks are beginning to form. Some rank and file Republicans are openly discussing impeachment, and some GOP leaders are calling for more stringent investigations. But that’s all it is at this point, talk. If things remain as they are, and do not get worse, it is possible that the GOP will stick with Trump and take their chances in the midterm elections. But if things continue to get worse, which I think is likely, I fully expect more and more rank and file Republicans will break ranks and openly run against Trump because they want to try and save their seats. If things continue to get worse we will reach a point where congressional leadership will cut their losses and turn against Trump to try and salvage the party brand, if not the majorities themselves.
And this may not result in impeachment. At this juncture impeachment is a real possibility, which is not something I was willing to say two weeks ago, but I still don’t think it’s likely. At least not soon. I think it’s more likely that if things continue to deteriorate GOP leadership will cave and put together a bipartisan commission to investigate. If things get really bad they may move to appoint a special prosecutor. It is also possible that events will connive to take things out of their hands.
For example, the Justice Department could conceivably appoint a special prosecutor, or the different grand juries could deliver indictments. In which case the calculus for the GOP largely remains the same. Except now they have some additional cover, because they can point to the nonpartisan investigations and say, ‘we should not be hasty until the investigations conclude.’
However, I think it’s likely that most of the GOP’s legislative agenda is dead. Credible polling data consistently shows that a solid majority of likely voters are strongly opposed to Trump and the GOP legislative agenda. Solid majorities also favor thorough nonpartisan investigations. And as the media dedicates more time and resources to covering the cascading Trump scandals it will destroy any momentum behind legislative prerogatives, regardless of whether there is ultimately an independent investigation(s).
Given how egregiously the GOP in Congress broke from norms, protocol, and traditions during the Obama administration I don’t feel bad for them.
Unfortunately, as it was during the Obama administration, this is bad for the republic.
But if Republicans in Congress are indeed reaping what they have sewn then my response is this:
Welcome to Thunderdome.