Governing vs. grievance: The growing Republican dilemma

Pat Toomey
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., the ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, questions members of the Council of Economic Advisers on the state of the economy and inflation, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) <i>Gary Locke for the </i>Washington Examiner

Governing vs. grievance: The growing Republican dilemma

There is a split in the Republican Party, and it isn’t primarily about ideology. That’s not to say there aren’t deep disagreements in the party over major issues. Republicans are at odds over immigration, trade, and foreign policy. They aren’t all on the same page about Russia’s war in Ukraine. The GOP no longer speaks with one voice about the optimal size of government, if it ever did.

But divisions have persisted, even intensified, despite the fact that the Republican Party is more homogeneously conservative than it has ever been. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is arguably the most conservative Republican leader in the upper chamber of Congress since Mr. Republican himself, Robert Taft. And yet to hear many conservative activists tell it, you would think the Senate Republican leader was the second coming of Nelson Rockefeller.

Part of this is because the Republicans on various sides of debates about Ukraine, immigration policy, or China tariffs are almost all conservatives in good standing. Thinkers influencing the party may disagree about whether conservatism should be defined by individual freedom or the common good. But few contest conservatism’s dominance of the GOP, unless, like liberals who prefer the progressive label, they simply dislike the word.

The conclusion of the decadeslong battle between conservatives and centrist-to-liberal Republicans hasn’t brought anything like unity to the party. As recently as 2004, a Republican as liberal as Sen. Arlen Specter could beat one as conservative as his successor Sen. Pat Toomey in a GOP primary, with the incumbent Republican president’s blessing. Specter died a Democrat in 2012. And yet Toomey is departing the Senate more at odds with his party than 18 years ago, though he primarily blames one man: former President Donald Trump.

“It’s just one more data point in an overwhelming body of data that the Trump obsession is very bad for Republicans, but normal Republicans are doing extremely well,” Toomey told CNN after a Trump-endorsed candidate handed the retiring Pennsylvanian’s Senate seat to a deeply flawed Democrat. This was just six years after Trump became the first GOP presidential nominee to carry Pennsylvania since the quintessential normal Republican George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Trump was a symptom rather than a cause of a problem inside the GOP that predated his tumultuous presidency and has endured for nearly two years afterward: the rank-and-file Republican voters’ loss of confidence in the party’s governing class. The base has been revolting against the establishment for the better part of a dozen years. Trump was the battering ram that finally let the peasants with pitchforks inside the castle.

In the aftermath, all the king’s horses and men haven’t been able to reassemble that fractured structure. There are Republicans on Capitol Hill, K Street, even inside the former Trump administration who know how to pass legislation, formulate policy, and implement a governing agenda. But they are not necessarily the same Republicans who best understand the aspirations, ambitions, desires, hopes, fears, and grievances of the grassroots conservatives who help the GOP win power in the first place. Grievances, however, are not sufficient for governance.

Here, the McConnell example is instructive. He is almost as bitterly despised by a subset of the activist Right as the internet-addled liberals dutifully pumping hard-earned fundraising dollars into the campaign coffers of hopeless Kentucky Democratic challengers. Yet where the latter views him as a ruthless warrior for the conservative cause, the former sees him as the ultimate RINO sellout.

Yes, McConnell actually is every bit the Senate institutionalist President Joe Biden pretends to be. But he also kept vacant for almost a year the Supreme Court seat once held by conservative icon Justice Antonin Scalia in order to prevent a Democratic president from filling it. He built on Senate Democrats’ neutering of the judicial filibuster to ensure that the next Republican president — Trump, no less — did.

In a single generation, Senate Republicans went from almost unanimously confirming Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as sure a vote to uphold Roe v. Wade as nominating the president of Planned Parenthood herself, to almost unanimously confirming a woman who would help stitch together a majority on the other side.

McConnell worked with the Trump White House, which in this area was impeccably staffed, to build a durable 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court. The most important outcome of all this wasn’t some expansion of corporate personhood, but personhood of another kind: the reversal of Roe in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a goal pursued but never realized by five Republican presidents since that abortion precedent was first handed down in 1973.

Instead of becoming an object of GOP affection, McConnell is one of the least popular important political figures in the country. Just 23.7% of the public hold a favorable view of the Kentucky Republican, according to a RealClearPolitics polling average, to 56.7% who view him unfavorably. The resulting spread of negative 33 percentage points is significantly worse than Biden’s numbers, which are underwater by 7.9 points, and Trump’s, at 19.6 points net unfavorable.

That’s not just because of Democrats or Republican anger at the fact that Dobbs was not an unambiguous winner at the ballot box last fall. McConnell has become the symbol of Republican capitulation to the Democrats at every turn, from the situation at the southern border to the passage of the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package Biden signed into law before the end of the year.

Some of this is because McConnell is at least perceived to have changed tactics under Biden compared to President Barack Obama’s administration. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he said in remarks frequently quoted by Democrats as a rallying cry for nihilistic partisan obstructionism. McConnell has provided bipartisan cover, and personally voted, for some of Biden’s biggest legislative wins: infrastructure, the semiconductors bill, a modest gun control measure, the toxic burn pits legislation, even the omnibus.

McConnell’s 2010 comments about making Obama a one-term president have often been taken out of context by the Republican’s detractors across the political spectrum. He acknowledged the party had let its base down after the 1994 elections, which produced the first Republican majority in the Senate since the 1980s and the first in the House in 40 years.

“After 1994, the public had the impression we Republicans over promised and under delivered,” McConnell told National Journal. “We suffered from some degree of hubris and acted as if the president was irrelevant and we would roll over him. By the summer of 1995, he was already on the way to being reelected, and we were hanging on for our lives.”

Neither was McConnell calling for obstructing Obama and the Democrats no matter what. “If President Obama does a Clintonian backflip, if he’s willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it’s not inappropriate for us to do business with him,” he said.

Biden hasn’t done a Clintonian backflip, despite his failure to become the next FDR or LBJ. But McConnell has fallen into the same trap as every Republican speaker of the House since at least John Boehner: Conservative voters do not trust him when he says he is doing all he can for them or when he tells them what they want cannot be done at the present time. This extended all the way to former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), an erstwhile conservative movement darling who is today also savaged as a hapless RINO.

McConnell, the “Old Crow” and “Giveaway” senator, and Ryan may have wound up on the wrong side of Trump. But Boehner and other Republican leaders were encountering these problems pre-Trump.

The Tea Party, over a decade ago, was thought to be a continuation of the ideological conflict that nominated Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 and shifted Republicans from Gerald Ford to Ronald Reagan between 1976 and 1980. It may now be better understood as the beginning, or at least an escalation, of the rebellion against the Republican establishment.

Then as now, primary voters were willing to discard winnable seats in order to have nominees who better represented conservative anger at the status quo than more conventional, and sometimes more electable, Republican choices. In 2010, Democrats retained the Senate while losing 63 House seats and shedding a nearly three-fifths lower chamber majority.

It took longer for this tendency to manifest itself at the presidential level. As far back as Pat Buchanan coming within 16 points of a sitting Republican president in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, less than a year after that commander in chief enjoyed 90% job approval ratings at the end of the Persian Gulf War, disenchanted conservatives were warning the party establishment. By 2012, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann, former pizza CEO Herman Cain, and former Sen. Rick Santorum each took turns leading polls of national Republican primary voters. In the end, the voters stuck with the safe establishment choice each time.

Until 2016, when the unheeded warning signs gave way to Trump dispatching 16 prominent Republican candidates for the party’s presidential nomination against the combined opposition of most of the GOP establishment and much of the conservative movement. He was, if anything, less ideological than many of his Republican detractors, but he had a better understanding of what bothered the party’s ordinary voters.

One case study in Republican failure: Obamacare. After Obama’s big healthcare win proved to be a pyrrhic victory with voters, Republicans campaigned for the better part of a decade on its repeal. But they failed to win the Senate or the presidency in the elections afterward.

In 2013, Republicans tried to defund Obamacare. It was never clear how they would do so without the White House or the Senate, or how a government shutdown for which Republicans were blamed in the polls would make Obama go along with defunding Obamacare. The gambit was popular with the base, but failed.

Four years later, Obama was finally gone. Republicans had unified control of the federal government. They promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, though they had yet to coalesce around a plan for the latter.

The Tea Party did not know how to repeal Obamacare. Neither did Trump or the Republican establishment. The once-hated law began polling well for the first time since it was enacted. The individual mandate, a particularly unpopular component of Obamacare, did not survive. But most of the law did. Medicaid, which it expanded, is set to eclipse 100 million enrollees. The next healthcare debate could well feature Republicans defending Obamacare, though they are unlikely to call it that, against some form of single-payer.

Republicans who understood the grievances of their voters proved unable to govern. Those who knew how to get legislation across the finish line did not appear to appreciate the commitments they made to their voters. No faction of the party covered itself in glory. By the 2022 elections, it was barely a campaign issue.

Trump’s term as president featured successes as well as failures. But it unmistakably did not calm the anger in Republican circles. Seeking to return to the White House in 2024, Trump campaigns more like an insurgent than an ex-president. His imitators won numerous primaries in 2022. On Jan. 6, before he left office, a subset of his supporters behaved as if they took the descriptions of themselves as rebels storming the barricades literally.

The midterm elections could provide a corrective. Trump imitators, who often echoed his incendiary rhetoric and claims that the 2020 election was stolen but lacked his star power or humor, did not fare as well in November as in the primaries. But few Republicans have the credibility to make this diagnosis to the base. And the narrow House majority itself — there is no corresponding one in the Senate after the losses of Herschel Walker, Mehmet Oz, Blake Masters, and Adam Laxalt — empowers the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who won reelection fairly easily.

Much of the hope invested in figures such as Gov. Ron DeSantis is that they have shown a capacity to square the circle: to understand what motivates GOP voters besides cutting taxes and confirming judges while successfully shaping policy. It remains to be seen whether the congressional contingent can also inspire such confidence.

“In the last 100 years, three presidents suffered big defeats in Congress in their first term and then won reelection: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and the most recent example, Bill Clinton,” a Republican leader warned, vowing, “I read a lot of history anyway, but I am trying to apply those lessons to current situations in hopes of not making the same mistakes.”

So said Mitch McConnell, two years before Obama’s reelection.

W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner‘s politics editor.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

Related articles

Share article

Latest articles