If Hillary Clinton is elected this fall, it will mark an unusual third straight defeat in presidential elections for Republicans and a historically unprecedented loss of the popular vote in six elections out of seven. And while nobody is sure yet how Donald Trump’s roiling of the party establishment will play out in future primaries, it’s clear enough that the party is settling in on a consensus view of how elected officials should respond in the short term — by doing the same thing they’ve been doing for the past eight years.
Exhibit A here is the Supreme Court, where Republicans are preparing to abandon the pretense that their refusal to confirm Merrick Garland has anything to do with the alleged impropriety of filling a Supreme Court vacancy in the eighth year of an administration. Instead, they will simply oppose anyone Clinton nominates because Clinton will nominate Democrats and they are not Democrats.
I asked Cruz if there should be votes on Clinton court nominees if GOP holds Senate. He said there's plenty of precedent for <9 justices.— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) October 26, 2016
Exhibit B is Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah who is voting for but not endorsing Trump, while promising to undertake “years” of investigations: not of future wrongdoing that he thinks Clinton might engage in but of past pseudo-scandals that have already been thoroughly aired.
“Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up,” Chaffetz told the Washington Post’s David Weigel. “She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”
Depending on what happens, this may or may not work to drive Clinton’s favorable ratings down and help defeat her in 2020. But it’s the exact opposite of the new thinking many are calling for to either address the concerns of Trump’s voters or broaden the party’s appeal to new demographic groups. Indeed, in concrete policy terms an agenda of bad-faith investigations and blanket refusal to cooperate with anything seems counterproductive.
A doomed Supreme Court strategy
Under current Senate rules, a minority of as few as 40 Republicans can block a Supreme Court nominee. And both presidents and potentially vulnerable incumbent senators generally prefer to do things through large bipartisan votes rather than narrow partisan ones.
Liberal activists, by contrast, though officially supportive of Judge Garland’s nomination, are not thrilled by it. Garland is on the more conservative side of plausible Democratic nominees, and is also on the older side. Activist groups, in other words, would love to see Clinton revoke Garland’s nomination in favor of a younger and more left-wing choice.
A well-functioning Republican Party would respond to this by conveying to Clinton that they will filibuster a younger and more liberal nominee but are open to confirming Garland. Then if Clinton insisted on spiking Barack Obama’s own choice, the GOP would have solid political grounds on which to oppose her new pick and to pressure vulnerable senate Democrats such as Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp to do the same.
The actual Republican Party, by signaling its intention to block any nominee for any reason, will give Chuck Schumer precisely the political rationale he needs to further curb filibuster — opening the door to a more left-wing justice and potentially more liberal legislation as well.
More Clinton investigations
Perhaps nothing in the history of American government has been more thoroughly investigated than Hillary Clinton’s four-year tenure as Secretary of State. Seven different investigations were mounted into Benghazi alone, but when none of them turned up any wrongdoing, House Republicans decided to convene an eighth investigation — a special select committee designated exclusively to Benghazi.
As Kevin McCarthy, the number two House Republican, explained, the purpose of the eighth investigation was to harm Clinton’s presidential campaign. As he told Sean Hannity in September 2015:
What you’re going to see is a conservative speaker, that takes a conservative Congress, that puts a strategy to fight and win. And let me give you one example. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?
But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen.
This eighth investigation also found no wrongdoing. But in a sense, all the various Benghazi inquiries did bear fruit because they led to the revelation of Clinton’s private email server. That in turn spawned an extensive FBI investigation that also found no crime. In total, these investigations cost about $30 million in taxpayer funds, according to Ciro Scotti of the Fiscal Times.
By contrast, something like Wells Fargo creating hundreds of thousands of fake bank accounts merited a single hearing by one House committee.
Chaffetz runs the House Oversight Committee, so doing investigations is absolutely his job. If Clinton’s administration does not generate an investigation-worthy controversy or two, I would be shocked. But he’s not saying he will investigation fresh accusations of wrongdoing. He’s saying that after tens of millions of dollars have already been spent investigating Clinton’s State Department years and after Clinton wins an election in which the fruits of those investigations were a major issue, he wants to go investigate them again.
The definition of insanity
If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that politics is unpredictable.
A strategy of obstructing Clinton on policy — even when it leads to a worse substantive outcome for conservatives than they could have gotten by compromising — plus extensive investigations that simply presuppose Clinton’s guilt might turn out to be political gold. Even if they don’t, a hothouse atmosphere governed by Day One insistence that Crooked Hillary is obviously guilty of immense crimes might encourage Republican voters to nominate a candidate who’s more palatable to mainstream voters next time. Even if that doesn’t happen, bad luck for the American economy or other substantive setbacks in foreign policy could make Clinton super-unpopular.
But fundamentally, as the frequently misattributed saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
And thus, far for all the talk of a divided party and a post-Trump civil war, doing exactly that looks like a consensus strategy for the GOP.