The word of the day in politics seems to be “chaos,” as in the chaos that is currently gripping the Republicans in their search for a new Speaker of the House. My tendency is to not get into the specifics of the process, but to take a look at the bigger picture of how the Republicans got to this point.
In order to examine something like this, you have to pick a particular starting point in history – which is always a problem. But because we have to begin somewhere, let’s go with the day President Obama was inaugurated. We know that was when Republican leaders made the fateful decision on a strategy to deal with the fact that they had not only lost the presidency, but the House and Senate had maintained (and grown) their Democratic majorities. Their plan was to simply obstruct anything and everything the Democrats tried to do – even if they were things Republicans had previously supported. In other words, instead of presenting policy options, they would simply oppose. That’s why some pundits began to suggest that Republicans were post-policy.
In order to be successful in this strategy, they fanned the flames of racism, anger and fear at the newly elected President. That led Sen. Mitch McConnell (then Minority Leader in the Senate) to say that his number one goal was to make sure that Obama was a one-term president – even at a time when the country was trying to climb out of the Great Recession and extricate ourselves from two wars in the Middle East. But Senator Lindsay Graham said it even more bluntly:
Anytime you challenge the president, Obama, it’s good politics.
That strategy worked well for Republicans in the 2010 midterms, but didn’t stop Barack Obama from being elected to a second term. And then, in the 2014 midterms, Republicans gained control of the Senate, giving them a majority in both houses of Congress. At the time, Boehner and McConnell promised that they were now ready to govern and made great promises about their ability to do so.
Americans have entrusted Republicans with control of both the House and Senate. We are humbled by this opportunity to help struggling middle-class Americans who are clearly frustrated by an increasing lack of opportunity, the stagnation of wages, and a government that seems incapable of performing even basic tasks.
Looking ahead to the next Congress, we will honor the voters’ trust by focusing, first, on jobs and the economy. Among other things, that means a renewed effort to debate and vote on the many bills that passed the Republican-led House in recent years with bipartisan support, but were never even brought to a vote by the Democratic Senate majority…
Enacting such measures early in the new session will signal that the logjam in Washington has been broken, and help to establish a foundation of certainty and stability that both parties can build upon…
Will these bills single-handedly turn around the economy? No. But taking up bipartisan bills aimed at helping the economy that have already passed the House is a sensible and obvious first step.
We all know how that turned out. By February, the Republicans in Congress were engaged in a fierce battle over shutting down the Department of Homeland Security because of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. And Speaker Boehner’s surprise resignation was an attempt to buy off the Freedom Caucus to avoid a total government shutdown over funding for Planned Parenthood. So much for “bipartisan bills aimed at helping the economy,” huh?
What happened is that members of the Freedom Caucus got elected to be post-policy and to see their agenda of slash and burn implemented. But establishment Republicans wanted to go back to the good-old-days when you don’t alienate most of the country by talking so truthfully about your real intentions. In other words, they knew that governing meant pivoting away from being post-policy and going back to the Republican standard of being what David Roberts called post-truth.
Republicans thus talk about “taxes” and “spending” and “regulation” in the abstract, since Americans oppose them in the abstract even as they support their specific manifestations. They talk about cutting the deficit even as they slash taxes on the rich and launch unfunded wars. They talk about free markets even as they subsidize fossil fuels. They talk about American exceptionalism even as they protect fossil-fuel incumbents and fight research and infrastructure investments.
In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics. They’ve realized that their rhetoric doesn’t have to bear any connection to their policy agenda. They can go through different slogans, different rationales, different fights, depending on the political landscape of the moment. They need not feel bound by previous slogans, rationales, or fights. They’ve realized that policy is policy and politics is politics and they can push for the former while waging the latter battle on its own terms. The two have become entirely unmoored.
This is what some people are referring to when they say that the conflict between the Freedom Caucus and establishment Republicans is all about tactics rather than substance. The all agree on the latter, the establishment folks just don’t want the lunatics to be so damn truthful about it!
Putting the genie back in the bottle isn’t sitting very well right now with the Freedom Caucus. But everyone seems to think that Rep. Paul Ryan is just the one to bridge that divide. We’ll see. If Erick Erickson and the folks at Red State are any reflection of that, it doesn’t look promising. This tells us a lot about what the post-policy folks are looking for:
Others who are more in line with Ryan’s principles and goals have the same questions about him that linger over Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and, in a different context, over Chief Justice Roberts – whether this polite, intelligent, reasonable and eloquent spokesman for our ideas really has the spine to play the stubborn bad cop and sacrifice some of his own reputation for reasonableness when it’s necessary to get to the dirty, knife-fighting business of brinksmanship with ruthless progressives of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid variety…The fact that Ryan has never been willing to do the dirty work to seek out either the Speakership or the Presidency suggests a virtue of character but a deficit of political ruthlessness of this sort. Ryan is likely to seek much-needed common ground between House moderates, the Freedom Caucus, the Senate leadership of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Senate hardliners of the Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) variety; whether that exists, and whether he has the necessary bloody-mindedness to impose it on them, is another story.
The highlights are mine. Those words give you some idea of how the Freedom Caucus sees the game of post-policy politics.