By almost any political measurement, the Republican party is the strongest it’s been in generations.
Voter reaction against the leftward lurch of the Obama Administration has won the GOP a share of federal, state and national offices it hasn’t enjoyed since the 1920s. It is a dramatic turnaround for a party that many observers left for dead after Democrat sweeps in 2006 and 2008.
The Republican party’s resurgence, however, was driven by explicitly conservative campaign messages and rhetoric. The party tapped into voters’ economic anxiety and frustration with a rapidly expanding federal government and unsustainable spending and debt. The party leadership in Washington, though, never fully absorbed, or apparently even believed, its campaign rhetoric.
As a result, the Republican party is cracking-up before our eyes. In doing so, it is forfeiting yet another incredible opportunity to recapture the White House. Future historians may point to this past week as the moment the emerging dominant political party blew apart.
In his final act as House Speaker, Rep. John Boehner is pushing through a budget deal that acquiesces to almost all of President Obama’s spending demands. The budget, under current law, was already set to grow by $250 billion this year. Under the new budget deal, spending will increase by another $100 billion over the next two years.
The deal blows through the spending caps, i.e. sequestration, that was the one fiscal victory Republicans secured from Obama back in 2011. The deal also approves another $1.5 trillion or so in new borrowing, push the federal debt to just under $20 Trillion.
These spending increases are “paid for,” we are told, by cuts realized several years in the future. The “savings” come from future trimming of entitlement spending and sales of oil in the strategic petroleum reserve. Only politicians in Washington would decide to sell oil when it is trading at nearly historic lows.
In exchange for the boost in spending and debt, Republicans get to avoid fiscal issues until after the 2016 elections. Presumed incoming Speaker Paul Ryan can begin his leadership without any tough negotiations over the budget or entitlements. Of course, these are the very issues Ryan is supposed to be most adept at handling.
The budget deal reveals the fundamental political weakness of Republicans, as opposed to conservatives. Republicans want to avoid any political fights on or around elections, while conservatives relish them as a means to frame an election. Removing questions about government spending from the political debate prevents conservatives from using voters’ anger about deficit spending to power Republican victories.
While the budget deal was coming into focus, rank-and-file Republican lawmakers in the House bucked GOP leadership and joined with almost all the Democrats to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. The Bank, which shut down at the end of June, is a New Deal-era federal agency providing subsidized loans to foreign companies to buy American goods. The Bank is little more than corporate welfare, conferring most of its benefits on Boeing, Caterpillar and General Electric.
The Bank subsidizes less than 2 percent of America’s exports, but greatly helps a few select mega-corporations who shower Congress with campaign donations. There is no legitimate political or economic case to be made for the Bank except as a vehicle to reward campaign donors. Democrats, naturally, support the Bank. The more amazing thing is that almost half the Republicans in the House defied their own leadership to do so. They represent a Republican party that is largely extinct in the country where voters live.
This Republican party, which came of age politically after Reagan and during the triangulating years of the Clinton presidency, is transactional. It takes for granted almost all of the federal government’s spending, regulatory and entitlement programs and strives to trim the excesses at the margin. Its highest aspirations are to make the government more efficient, rather than rolling it back.
This Republican party has studied and observed the innovative power of the private sector, but has no experience in it. It wants to inject private sector sensibilities into governing, rather than keeping those sensibilities free from government. A Republican party that would resurrect FDR’s Ex-Im Bank simply doesn’t understand the political philosophy animating conservatives or newly coursing through the veins of voters.
It is a party that can’t understand how outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson can dominate the Republican field for President for months. It looks at polls, where an overwhelming majority of Republican voters prefer candidates with an expressly anti-establishment message and concludes that something is wrong with voters.
On Tuesday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich channeled many Republican leaders and lashed out at Republican voters. “Do you know how crazy this election is?” the Kasich said. “I’ve about had it with these people,” referring to the candidates leading the Republican polls.
“If we turn this country over to somebody with wild ideas who thinks they can scream and bluster or operate their way to success, it’s my kids that are going to be at risk, and your kids, and your grandchildren,” Kasich said at a campaign event in Ohio.
“I’m going to have call it like it is as long as I’m in this race,” Kasich said. “I’m done with being polite and listening to this nonsense, and it’s time we educate the American people about the consequences of very bad choices.”
Kasich, it should be remembered, used ObamaCare to greatly expand Medicaid in Ohio, which will negatively impact future taxpayers in that state. He defended this decision by referencing his religion and Jesus Christ. His decision to expand Medicaid, using federal money to underwrite its cost in the first few years was obviously popular politically. The cuts and reforms a future Governor will have to make once that initial federal money goes away will be less popular, of course.
Kasich, who ran the House Budget Committee during the Clinton years, is a transactional Republican. His tantrum against candidates running on conservative messages is simply giving voice to what many Republicans in Washington think.
A few days before Kasich’s outburst, one-time Republican frontrunner Jeb Bush voiced his own frustrations with the Republican voter base.
“If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, then … I don’t want any part of it,” Bush said at an event in South Carolina. “I don’t want to be elected president to sit around and see gridlock just become so dominant that people literally are in decline in their lives. That is not my motivation.”
“I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that,” Bush said.
Setting aside the fact a candidate really shouldn’t advertise that they have other things they could do rather than run for office, Bush, and Kasich, both miss a fundamental fact about the electorate. Voters don’t necessarily want gridlock or simply want to fight for its own sake. They recognize, though, that fighting may be required to achieve what they think is necessary.
Looking at the downward statistics scattered throughout our lives, it is perfectly reasonable for voters to feel frustrated and angry. It is also unremarkable that they prefer candidates who recognize the challenges ahead of us and respond with at least some sense of urgency to them.
Bush and Kasich may see anger, but they are missing the seismic forces surrounding our loves and generating that anger. With Republicans in Washington green-lighting new spending for Obama, after campaigning relentlessly against this very spending, how can voters react with anything but anger? Can Republicans really expect voters to accept over $1 trillion in new debt and eliminate spending caps in exchange for nothing?
Can any Republican actually campaign to rein in the government and seek to expand corporate welfare, a la the Export-Import Bank?
Finally, is the Republican party really going to go into the next election with two of its major candidates lashing out at its base voters and its Congressional leadership blowing the lid on new spending and authorizing more than $1 trillion in new debt?
This may be the week the Republican party died. Here’s hoping a new Republican party emerges from its ashes.