“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in October 2010.
The unemployment rate was 9.4 percent that month. The need for stimulus was desperate. But led by McConnell, Republicans blocked Democrats’ every attempt at further support. The GOP didn’t have a better plan for restarting the economy, but they didn’t need one. The belief, then, was that relentless opposition reflected the strategic incentives of the minority party. Obama and the Democrats carried the burden of governance, and would bear the blame for failure. The red wave in the 2010 election seemed to prove McConnell’s approach right, tactically if not morally.
Today, unemployment stands at 10.2 percent — higher than during the peak of the previous financial crisis, and that’s almost certainly an underestimate of the true employment calamity. The death toll from Covid-19 has likely passed 200,000. Vast swaths of the US remain at varying levels of lockdown. But McConnell — and, to be fair, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows — is acting as if the most important thing to achieve is for President Trump to be a one-term president.
This is the strange truth of 2020: The dynamic in Congress is virtually identical to what we saw in 2010. Democrats want more economic support; they passed a $3.5 trillion bill in the House in May. Republicans don’t, and they’ve refused to act on the House bill, or offer an alternative that reflects the size of the crisis — the main feature of the $1 trillion HEALS Act is that it cuts the expanded unemployment benefits in an attempt to push people back to work, even though the virus is anything but controlled.
Worse, in the absence of an agreement, they’ve let the provisions from previous packages expire or run out of money, draining aid from workers and businesses that remain under lockdown and now face poverty or bankruptcy. The total failure of governance is matched by a bizarre absence of urgency: McConnell could hold round-the-clock sessions in an attempt to strike a deal. Instead, the Senate is adjourned until September.
What’s baffling is that Republicans are running this strategy while they are in the majority. Donald Trump is president of the United States, and Mitch McConnell is Senate majority leader. They carry the burden of governance, and they will bear the blame for failure. If polls are to believed, both of them are likely to lose those jobs come November. What, after all, is the case for reelecting a Republican Party that has no coherent policy response to a virus that Europe and Asia have managed to control, or to an economy in free fall? “GOP 2020: More of this!” is not a winning slogan when 70 percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track.
Politically, the Republican Party’s current approach is so self-sabotaging that I figured I must be missing something. Someone must have a plan, a theory, an alternative. Chaos is Trump’s brand, but surely McConnell won’t walk passively back into the minority. And so I began asking Republican Hill staffers and policy experts for correction. What wasn’t I seeing? What was the GOP’s policy theory right now? What do Republicans actually want?
I posed these questions to Tea Party conservatives, populist reformers, and old-line Reaganites. The answer, in every case, was the same. Different Republican senators have different ideas, but across the party as a whole, there is no plan. The Republican Party has no policy theory for how to contain the coronavirus, nor for how to drive the economy back to full employment. And there is no plan to come up with a plan, nor anyone with both the interest and authority to do so. The Republican Party is broken as a policymaking institution, and it has been for some time.
“I don’t think you’re missing anything,” said a top Republican Senate staffer. “You have a whole bunch of people in the Senate posturing for 2024 rather than governing for the crisis we’re in.”
“There hasn’t been a coherent GOP policy on anything for almost five years now,” a senior aide to a conservative Senate Republican told me. “Other than judges, I don’t think you can point to any united policy priorities.”
Oh. Well, then.
Four theories for the GOP’s governance crisis
The Republicans I spoke to were clear-eyed on the electoral disaster that threatens their party. There is no campaign ad that will overwhelm mass death, no tweetstorm that will convince Americans to ignore immiseration. So what accounts for the governing political party ceasing to govern amid a global crisis and the prospect of an electoral wipeout? A few theories dominated.
It’s Trump’s fault. There was wide agreement that Trump has broken the Republican Party’s ability to govern — particularly on coronavirus. It’s not just that he is uninterested in the daily, difficult work of governance. It’s that he poses a threat to anyone who tries to step out in front of him. Any strategy congressional Republicans attempt could be shredded the next time the president picks up his phone. And with Trump still at 91 percent among Republican voters, few GOP members of Congress are comfortable crossing him.
“A lot of the Republicans I talk to seem almost emasculated by the White House,” says Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who spent six years as Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-OH) chief economist. “The president will do what he’s going to do. Any strategy they come up with will be undermined tomorrow by a tweet. Their fate is tied to a president they can’t control or even influence.”
The result has been, effectively, paralysis. Trump won’t govern. Without clarity on what he will support, congressional Republicans feel they can’t govern.
“A lot of Republican politicians are still fundamentally perplexed by Trump’s immense popularity with their core voters,” says Yuval Levin, director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “They just don’t think they can pick a fight with him and win it on any subject. They’re just not sure what the dynamics are, where the boundaries are. They’re so afraid of being in the crosshairs that they really aren’t doing a damn thing.”
Conservative thinking has no room for Covid-19. The coronavirus death toll shows that whatever it is America is doing now, it’s not working. The experiences of Europe and Asia show that the virus can be controlled. So what do congressional Republicans think should happen next?
On this question, every answer was a verbal shrug. Collectively, congressional Republicans have no theory for containing the virus. And they don’t really see it as their job to come up with one. It may have been the Trump administration’s job, but the White House decided to leave it to state and local governments.
That’s left congressional Republicans in a bind. To admit a new strategy is needed is to say that Trump is failing, and few are willing to risk the predictable reprisals. Moreover, congressional Republicans are uncomfortable proposing the kinds of strategies that have worked elsewhere. For instance: Pushing America back into lockdown while spending tens of billions to set up a true test-trace-isolate strategy would also require a multitrillion-dollar support package so families and businesses could survive the return to economic deep-freeze. Few Republicans want to do that.
“There’s a certain amount of motivated reasoning here,” says the top GOP staffer. “If you’re not going to have government intervention, you can’t have the lockdowns.”
Managing a pandemic is difficult in the best of circumstances, but it’s almost impossible if the party is built around mistrust of the government and opposition to social services.
They’re worried about Tea Party 2.0. The most unexpected argument that recurred in my reporting is that congressional Republicans are already acting in fear of a post-Trump backlash, with the coronavirus-support bills playing the role in 2022 that the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) vote played in 2010.
“They are already looking ahead to a Tea Party reawakening in the next couple of years, and they’re voting with that in mind,” says Riedl.
One Senate staffer noted that many of the GOP’s loudest voices against further stimulus won their seats in the Tea Party wave of 2010. “Ted Cruz was elected on Cut, Cap, and balance. Rand Paul was in the 2010, post-TARP election. Nikki Haley won her governor’s race in 2010 on the TARP issue. Ron Johnson was 2010. Those are the four loudest anti-spending folks on the right.” Opposing Democratic stimulus bills is, on some level, the foundation of their politics.
That ideology has a firmer hold on the White House now, too. Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Congress member who is now Trump’s chief of staff, also rode the Tea Party energy to Congress, winning in 2012 and becoming a leader in the Freedom Caucus. He’s heading a faction inside the White House that’s trying to block Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin from cutting another multitrillion-dollar deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
They’ve given up on 2020, and many are looking toward 2024. Some Senate GOP aides griped to me that Trump’s falling poll numbers have led to too many GOP senators looking past 2020 and beginning to position themselves for 2024. Those senators know they can’t cross powerful factions in their own party — the Trumpist faction chief among those — but they also need to build their own profiles. Being the loudest voice against whatever it is the Democrats want to do is the easiest way to square the circle. But it’s left America without a governing party at a time when good governance is desperately needed.
That brings me to the explanation for GOP behavior that is almost unanimous among Senate Democrats I’ve spoken to. They believe Republicans are readying themselves to run the strategy against former Vice President Joe Biden they ran against President Obama: Weaponize the debt — which Republicans ran up by trillions during the Trump administration — as a cudgel against anything and everything the Democrats want to do. Force Democrats to take sole ownership of an economic response that’s too small to truly counteract the pain.
If Republicans are behaving like an opposition party that primarily wants to stop Democrats from doing anything, that’s because it’s the role they’re most comfortable playing, and one many of them expect to reprise soon.
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