A good friend of mine asked me a few days ago if I thought it might have been better for the Republican Party’s long-term prospects if Hillary Clinton had been elected president last year. I was very much surprised to find that my immediate impulse was to pay the expected partisan lip service to the utter irredeemable nature of a Clinton presidency; to deny that anything good could possibly have come of it. My shock was made all the more real by my realization that just about two years ago, I wrote in this blog that it would require not one, but two terms of Clinton in the White House to turn the Republican Party around. What’s craziest of all, though, is that when I examined my feelings on that question further, I became absolutely convinced that I really was wrong those two (long) years ago. Why? Because the Republican majorities in Congress have, in a very short time, demonstrated that no election is going to teach them how to actually govern. And even if they somehow got their act together, the Democrats wouldn’t just decline to help them; they would actively try to stop the GOP in its tracks. (And I don’t necessarily mean that last statement as a condemnation.)
It all started with what I consider to be the GOP’s biggest blunder so far in the Trump Era: the decision by leaders in Congress to make fast-tracking an Obamacare repeal their first order of business in the new session. Never mind that the replacement bill was under-baked, unworkable, unsatisfactory, and wholly despised by everyone everywhere—the real mistake was in lining healthcare up as the first legislative priority and then sprinting toward a vote without so much as a water break. It truly astounds me that a party that had a front-row seat to watch their opponents make the same mistake back in 2009 would turn around and repeat it almost exactly upon returning to power. Let’s face it—the Democrats paid a huge price for their decision to make healthcare reform their first priority after President Obama came into office. They got what they wanted, but successive drubbings in 2010, 2014, and 2016 have reduced their party’s strength at all levels of government to historic lows. On paper, this is both a triumph for Republicans as well as a roadmap for what not to do with their newfound power. But, true to form, they just went ahead and did it anyway. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that not only did they waste a massive amount of political capital, but they didn’t even get what they wanted in the first place. And what’s even more insane is that their response was to float a worse bill that is also in the process of falling apart.
The failure of Paul Ryan’s conference to utilize its robust majority and actually get an Obamacare “repeal and replace” package through the House is a stark illustration of how much more difficult it is to be a governing party than it is to be an opposition one. And the Republicans have never been much of a governing party to begin with. I’ve railed before about their inability to learn from their electoral defeats—hell, it took a phenomenon like Donald Trump to simply begin the process of walking away from the mistakes of the Bush years—and 2016 will go down in history as being no different. After spending eight years clamoring for Obamacare’s demise (the easy part), Republicans fell flat on their faces when they actually tried to come up with a real plan to replace it (the hard part). This isn’t wholly surprising—drafting an actual replacement plan is actively against an opposition party’s interests. But what I can’t forgive is the GOP’s utter unwillingness to get serious about the healthcare debate.
I’d be willing to entertain a fleshed-out “market-based” healthcare reform package, but I have no confidence that Congressional Republicans are up to that task. Their refusal to take their time drafting a bill is indicative of their inability to actually craft a workable one. They were more concerned about escaping the corner they had boxed themselves into for nearly a decade than actually trying to improve people’s lives. And I think this boils down to the fact that the Party, so steeped in the philosophy of austerity, simply can’t accept the fact that comprehensive healthcare reform requires spending a boatload of money. Take Tom Price’s plan: it’s a solid outline for a reform package, but (in my humble opinion) you’d have to shell out as least five times as much money as it allots for tax credits in order for it to be even remotely realizable. That’s just not a conversation the Republicans are willing to have. And it’s a tragedy for me to watch a unified, nominally conservative government stumble into these traps of their own creation.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, Mitch McConnell has killed the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees. I’ll just go ahead and say that I think there is plenty of blame to go around on this one—Republicans first cooked up the so-called “nuclear option” because of Democratic obstruction of George W. Bush’s lower court nominees, but it was Republican intransigence that led Harry Reid to ultimately go nuclear on that count. Similarly, although the Democrats’ current partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee is a nearly unprecedented event, they’d be the first to remind you that Republicans refused to even give Merrick Garland a hearing, let alone a vote. These are all valid points, which leads me to conclude that everyone is wrong and both parties are at fault, as usual.
I have very mixed feelings on what now appears to be a party-line confirmation vote for Neil Gorsuch. I view Judge Gorsuch (as do most conservatives) as an extremely capable and flawlessly pedigreed candidate for our nation’s highest court. I actually agree with liberals who characterize his views as outside the mainstream, but so were the views of the man he would replace—a man who was himself a brilliant jurist and (in my view, invaluable) conservative bulwark on the Supreme Court. Choosing a man like Judge Gorsuch to succeed the late Justice Scalia maintains what I view as a nearly-ideal status quo on the Court: four conservatives, four liberals, and a right-libertarian swing vote. And so obviously part of me is quite pleased to see that Judge Gorsuch’s path to the Supreme Court is assured.
But an equally significant part of me is terrified for what this could mean in the future. What will happen when the Democrats find themselves in power again? How many Supreme Court seats will be up for grabs when that time comes? What exactly will Supreme Court nominees look like in a world where only 51 (or even 50) Senators need to support him or her? And the Democrats should be afraid, too—their unwillingness to make a deal this time around has robbed them of their ability to even consider one next time. They had better pray “next time” isn’t in the next four years.
And so, in what I’ve already said should be a triumphant moment of unified Republican control of government, I find myself discouraged and unengaged. I’m watching a party that can’t get its House conference in order and has to make Faustian bargains in the Senate even when their members are united. Add in a partisan environment that has done nothing but grow more rancorous for the past decade, and the only thing I know for sure is that the Republican Party has learned nothing from winning and would have learned even less from losing. Ditto the Democrats, for whom the reality of their own vulnerability clearly hasn’t sunk in yet. And all of this, of course, is to say nothing of the creature in the White House. The Trump years are, I think, predestined to be a train wreck. Sure, we got the “conservative” majorities that we always wanted and the Supreme Court nominee of our dreams. But, I can’t help but ask, at what cost?