What Happens When One Party Doesn’t Care About Governing?

Republicans have increasingly become post-policy.

Over the course of the Obama presidency, we’ve watched as Republicans have thrown out many of the norms that have been established in order to keep our democracy functioning. It isn’t just things like shouting “You lie!” in a presidential address before a joint session of Congress. And it isn’t just a requirement that basically any vote (including presidential nominations) get a super majority in the Senate. It includes doing things like overtly undermining the executive branch during complex negotiations with other countries (i.e., Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accord) and failing to give a Supreme Court nominee a hearing. Remember back during Obama’s first term when Republicans were taking the global economy hostage by threatening to not raise the debt limit? Now we’re witnessing a truly bizarre presidential candidate who is basically running on a platform of breaking all the norms.

These are the kinds of things a party does when it doesn’t care about governing. So what is it that they actually want? Perhaps Sen. Mitch McConnell articulated it best when – during Obama’s first term – he said that his ultimate goal was to ensure Obama was limited to one term. It’s basically the same rationale he and Speaker Ryan have given for supporting Donald Trump – they want to win the White House, even if it means electing a racist/sexist narcissist. In other words, it’s a power game with the interests of the American people as the pawns.

I am reminded of something a blogger named mistermix wrote back in 2010 during the height of the budget negotiations.

As Tim F. posted earlier, Ezra Klein thinks that Obama’s a bad poker player. He may be right, but the analogy isn’t helpful. Poker is a win/lose game. Negotiation is a win/win game, because both parties get something when a deal is struck. Republicans aren’t playing poker or negotiating. They are playing another game, call it “You Must Lose”. They’re happy with win/lose, if they win, but they’ll tolerate lose/lose as long as Obama loses.

The only analogy that springs to mind when I look at the Republicans’ recent behavior is a bad divorce. Think of a situation where Lisa and Bob are getting a divorce, and Bob is so hell-bent on hurting Lisa that he doesn’t care about their kids or their bank account. Bob will deploy a hundred variations on the same tactic: put the Lisa in a bind where she has to choose between damaging the children and losing money. Lisa will lose money almost every time in order to save the children.

In this situation, capitulation is inevitable, the only question is what form it will take.

That caught my eye because, as a former family therapist I know the analogy well. I used to call it “divorce wars.” The basic plot is all about parents who have divorced and continue to play out their anger games with each other by using the children as pawns. It actually becomes calcified and intractable when both parents buy in – which ensures that everyone always loses. Think about that next time you hear a liberal suggest that Democrats should employ the same tactics as the Republicans.

What we are witnessing is a Republican Party that has completely abandoned any pretense of actually governing on behalf of the people. Here is how Mike Lofgren described it back in 2011:

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

So what are the Democrats’ options in a situation like this? First of all, they shouldn’t take the bait and join in a guaranteed lose-lose game. From there, mistermix described Obama’s options as three-fold back in 2010:

Obama has three tactics he can use, all of them weak: The first is to try to fracture the Republican caucus…The second is to use executive power to its limit, by rule-making…The third is institutional reform, specifically, ending the filibuster.

We’ve certainly seen the President employ the first two. The third was used in a small way to get the wheels going on presidential nominations. Part of the reason Democrats haven’t gone “nuclear” on the filibuster is that it actually joins Republicans in dismantling governing norms that have been in place for decades. But eventually that might have to be considered.

Because he was writing just as all of this was getting underway, mistermix didn’t include the ultimate solution…the one that gives the American people a say. At some point, voters have to decide if it is in their interest to elect politicians who are simply using them as their pawns in a power game. I know that as a family therapist, when I saw that a divorce wars situation was intractable, I would eventually go to the kids to begin the process of empowering them to make good choices (luckily in my practice they were adolescents).

As Republicans have increasingly become post-policy, the old conservative vs liberal arguments aren’t much in play this election. That is obvious in the presidential contest. But it is also true in House/Senate races – even if the candidates themselves won’t acknowledge it. Electing Republicans means supporting a party that isn’t interested in governing and is resigned to lose/lose if that is what it takes to stop Democrats from doing so.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.