Two Problems For Republicans–Or Just One?

As we drift towards autumn, it’s increasingly clear that the great big grownups of the Republican Party have two large problems. In Congress, there are multiple demands for government shutdowns from the ranks of fiscal conservatives (to cut spending), social conservatives (to defund Planned Parenthood) and certain business types (to kill climate change regulations). Schemes to kill the Iran nuclear deal and Obamacare (yet again) could make the clamoring for a shutdown almost deafening and impossible to stop until the government’s shut down and congressional leaders can produce polls showing it’s really hurting the party and the True Cause of Movement Conservatism.

But on a separate track, the GOP will have to cope with a huge and fractious presidential field prone to “base” posturing, which in the current climate means attacking the Republican congressional leadership for insufficient militancy towards Obama and the godless liberals.

In a sobering piece for the Atlantic, Norm Ornstein sees the latter problem reinforcing the former, making Mitch McConnell’s usual bravado talk about his legislative wizardry avoiding a shutdown ringing hollow at present. And in fact, he thinks the two problems flow from the same source, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s rise:

What explains the Trump bump? The answer is the emerging, even dominant force in the GOP—an angry, anti-establishment, anti-leadership populism that was triggered by the financial crisis and the 2008 bailout, cynically exploited in 2010 and 2012 by the “Young Guns” in the House and other GOP leaders in Congress to convert anger into turnout and elect Tea Party-oriented candidates. This force is now turning on those leaders, creating problems not just in the presidential race, but in a Congress whose leaders face the possibility of implosion ahead.

The angry populism has only grown with conservative rank and file incited to expect the repeal of Obamacare and an Obama capitulation on debt-ceiling showdowns and government shutdowns, ending repeatedly in disappointment. The sharp drop in Republican Party favorability shown in a recent Pew survey was driven by disenchantment among Republicans—an 18 percent decline in only six months.

But you can make the argument that the uprising against the Republican leadership is attributable to more than the most recent broken promises, as Martin Longman pointed out last week:

[T]he right hasn’t just been sold a bill of goods on things like voter fraud and Benghazi and Obamacare. They’ve also been promised a bunch of things that the Republican politicians either had no ability or no intention to fulfill. The Republican bigwigs don’t want to ban abortion. This isn’t Falangist Spain or Paraguay or Saudi Arabia. This isn’t Greece, either, and the GOP leaders have no desire to abolish the IRS. When the Republicans last had a man in the Oval Office, he vastly increased the power of the Department of Education and created a huge new prescription drug entitlement program for the elderly. This wasn’t some aberration. The Republicans who hold federal office aren’t nearly as opposed to federal power as they’d like their base of supporters to believe. They also have the ability to jettison their own bullshit when the bullshit hits the fan, which is why they pay our debts and why they gave the banks a huge bailout despite it contradicting their previously declared ideology. What we’re seeing now is a growing realization that nominating another Bush and expecting these promises to be kept is Einstein’s definition of insanity….

Until you understand what a massive fraud has been perpetrated on the right by the right, you will not begin to understand Trump’s success.

Before he could begin to be plausible, they first had to prepare the ground so that Birtherism would strike these people as plausible. Donald Trump didn’t do that; he just exploited it once it was done.

And he’s still exploiting it.

So, when no one you know thinks that Trump will be the nominee, maybe they’re correct. But maybe they just haven’t thought this through because the consequences are too frightening and depressing to contemplate.

In case you think Martin’s just spitballing here, check out the testimony of former Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, as quoted by Joshua Green of Bloomberg:

“If you look at the whole Republican Party, from libertarians to evangelicals to the Tea Party,” says Steele, “you have a group of people who’ve been lied to for 35 years. Republican [presidential candidates] have said, ‘Elect us and we’ll do these things.’ Well, they haven’t. And that frustration is manifesting itself in Trump.”

You will note that according to this authoritative source, the lies started in 1980, when Ronald Reagan took office.

Now to the Mitch McConnells of the world, this year’s GOP problems–or problem–is maddening, because the party’s strategy is so very simple: get to 2017 without screwing anything up, and then it’s time to talk turkey about this group’s and that group’s demands and IOUs. But “the base” is not only tired of waiting; it realizes its maximum leverage over the GOP is now, and so is its opportunity to take the wheel themselves, whether it’s by forcing a government shutdown strategy on McConnell and Boehner or rejecting safe and sound presidential candidates in favor of Trump or Cruz or Carson.

And as “responsible” Republicans battle the chaos, in the background you can hear the soft clucking of chickens coming home to roost.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.