Don't be the next contestant on that Summer Jam screen Because you know who (who) did you know what (what) With you know who (yeah) but just keep that between me and you for now.
Those prophetic words from the great Jay-Z could easily have been written about the three men pictured above who the Republican Party tapped as the faces of their opposition to a young President Barack Obama. The funny thing about it is, in 2009 and 2010 it looked like they were doing pretty well. Now it’s 2022, and Obama’s Vice-President is now the President, and at any time now the last of them could be laid waste to by his party. They have been summarily humiliated, defeated, and vanquished from the GOP.
It would be very easy to sit here and talk about the political failings of each of them individually, or laugh at how foolish it was to think these guys could take on the coolest American politician of his generation. One could spend time making this a demographic case study, and try to make the argument that the “arch of time” is against the House GOP, but that would ignore that the GOP has won or gained seats in every House election since that book cover, save for one. My hypothesis in the end though is quite different than that- none of the “young guns” individual flaws ended up mattering nearly as much as the entire miscalculation of creating the “young guns” at all.
The retired lady in North Dakota, the angry Kari Lake voter in Arizona, the young guy in Johnstown, PA, or the random retiree in The Villages of Florida all may have been seeking an alternative to Barack Obama in 2009, but the last 14 years have shown us that what they were not looking for was policy alternatives packaged in Washington, DC. Paul Ryan’s budget was not the response to Obama’s America they were asking for. The truth is that the whole “young guns” idea was something out of Bush’s Washington, and that Republican Party and America were simply dead when Obama came to town. It was a total misread of the Tea Party moment, and an even worse misread of where American conservatism was by the time 2015 arrived and John Boehner was being forced to vacate the Speaker’s Office to go sell marijuana. After Eric Cantor’s loss the GOP should have never thought Paul Ryan or Kevin McCarthy were going to be able to pacify what the GOP base had become. The last seven years that culminated in Kevin McCarthy’s utter humiliation on the House floor yesterday should have been predictable.
After Obama’s election, anyone who wanted to organize the GOP around an organized policy platform has come to be viewed as a moderate. To be a true conservative of the post-2008 world, one had to be willing to make a cultural argument directly against the America of Barack Obama. To be clear, allow this to clear up the dissonance of how some people voted for Obama himself and became Trumpers- it really wasn’t about Obama or even Bill Clinton’s job performances, it was more about the changes in America that were allowed to go on during their tenures. It was more about the people perceived to be getting preference in that vision of America, and that those people were getting those advantages while the new Republican base was being left to rot. This is why Romney failed to capture this base’s hopes and dreams, but Trump became their hero, his rhetoric reached them. It’s why the Republican “young guns” of 2009, in their suits, armed with their white papers on tax policy failed. The post-2008 GOP base didn’t give a damn about your policy talk, they wanted to know you would fight like hell. The more so you showed them, the more they loved you.
Let’s face it, nobody thinks Kevin McCarthy is a fighter. Or Paul Ryan. Or Eric Cantor. In fact, one by one they’ve been exposed as more willing to deliver for the rich donors than the GOP base, and it eventually catches up to them. Not one of the 20 Republicans who bucked McCarthy yesterday will be angering their own primary voters, just the DC based GOP crowd that the real base doesn’t think delivers for them anyway. The pulse of their party is fine with this.
The truth is the official, DC, mainstream GOP response to “Obamaism” was an attempt to put forward a polished policy alternative, and that bet was all wrong. The folks who wanted an alternative to the world Obama was putting forward wanted a visceral, confrontational opposition. Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor didn’t provide that. Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush didn’t provide that. Eventually the base of the GOP figures that out and disposed of them. For McCarthy, whether that really happened yesterday or a year from now, his time is coming. He and his fellow”young guns” made their bet, and they failed. We have reached the point where that is becoming pretty clear.
I hope my Republican friends reflect a bit on the state of their party. America needs two functional political parties to work, and we don’t have that right now. Exit polls showed Joe Biden’s approval in the low to mid 40’s, depending on the state. Republicans should have been able to turn that into a victory, but couldn’t. That is a commentary on the GOP. Doug Mastriano and Dr. Oz aren’t acceptable people, let alone candidates. Herschel Walker is a national embarrassment. People don’t want to put Marjorie Taylor Green or Jim Jordan in charge of a bingo game, let alone a house of Congress. And the Dobbs decision, let alone talk of banning contraception or marriage equality, is simply unacceptable to a majority of Americans. People probably would have liked a plan on gas prices beyond “drill, drill, drill,” but you never put that forward. You’ll probably narrowly get the House for two years, but that’s gone in two years when a Presidential electorate votes in New York, so enjoy it, and you’re not getting the Senate next year. There’s room for a Conservative party in America certainly, but I think the point is the freak show needs to end.
Have a great day, and Merry Christmas and Happy Thanksgiving,
I was discussing the overturning of Roe with a very unhappy friend this weekend and she said something interesting to me- “It seems like the Republicans are a lot better at getting what they want than us.” It struck me as right, but not as obviously as it sounded.
Republicans enjoy a variety of structural advantages in our current political system. One is that their voters are better distributed geographically than Democrats. Their voters also show up more consistently in non-Presidential elections. It is legislatively easier to get rid of regulations and cut taxes than it is to create new programs. Frankly if your ideology is just to cut taxes and appoint judges, that’s easier than navigating a bureaucracy to help those who need it. In short, their voters are more patient and consistently vote, and most of what they want is easier to do.
None of this is a satisfying answer though on the issue of ending Roe. This was a major achievement and took a lot more than structural advantages to get done. This is at a minimum a little bit bigger of an achievement than Obamacare was for Democrats, it was a cause that took generations, and really the only recent victory of this magnitude may very well have been the election of President Barack Obama as our first black President. It is a victorious culmination for an entire movement (though I’d warn them that victories like this often bring about a vicious backlash). The eldest of their votes to overturn Roe came from an appointee of 30 years ago and five Presidents ago. In that time span the GOP Presidents appointed six judges to the high court while only winning three of the eight elections since the appointment of Clarence Thomas. Yes, the GOP has held the Senate a slim majority of the last 30 years, but they mostly built this dominance over the court despite electoral results, not necessarily because of them alone. They simply are better at wielding power when they get it.
The best explanation for why the GOP can deliver a large victory like overturning Roe, despite its unpopularity and the fact they are not currently in power lies in the difference between the two parties voters- Republicans built a coalition of single-issue and single-cause voters. Sure, the pro-life movement and the pro-gun movement poll under water with the population at-large, but voters don’t vote that way. The majority of people who vote based on those two issues singularly in every election vote their way. The same can be said of people who want massive deregulation of the market, ending gay marriage, subsidies for fossil fuels, and tax cuts. Most voters base their vote on the one or two things they care about most, not some evaluation of how the whole party platform impacts all of society. If you come into their party because of one issue, they hope you’ll eventually become a disciple of the rest, but that’s really not that important. They understand that if you’re a pro-life voter, you’re probably voting Republican in 2022 and so they simply need to deliver.
The truth is that the Democrats could never run their party that way. Even if 90% of Democrats believe in expanding access to health care, a clean environment, and police reform, there are boulevard sized divides over how to do it and how far to go. It is nearly impossible to keep everyone together on rhetoric, let alone legislative text. Do we want to expand the ACA or go to full single payer? Defund the police or reform them? Safe, legal, and rare abortion or abortion on demand? The truth is that Democrats are left to try and build a coalition big enough to beat the GOP’s collection of single-issue voters, and need some very different voters to come together in order to win. These people have very different overall pictures of the America they want.
Some of this comes down to Republican operatives in DC simply doing a better job. They’re far less worried about process and getting everyone to the table to gum up the wheels. Some of this all just goes back to who they are. The NRA generally probably agrees with the pro-life movement on abortion, but they’re there to get their way on guns. Everybody in their party has a lane. It’s easier to win when you generally speak with one voice.
I’m not saying things were easy for Bill Clinton, being President is hard. It was easier than it was for Barack Obama though. Being President was hard for Barack Obama, I’m sure of it, but it was probably easier than it is for Joe Biden though. You probably are scratching your head and asking how I came to this conclusion, and where I’m going with this. The fact is, foreign relations are considerably harder today than they were right after the Soviet Union fell. The federal courts were much easier to navigate pre-Trump. The steady decline of Congress is 30 years further along than they were when Clinton came to town. The Republican Party’s decay is accelerating in the post-Bush world. And yes, Joe Biden faces more opposition within the Democratic Party than any Democratic President in my lifetime.
It’s amazing the guy wants the job.
In the moment after the Berlin Wall fell, America was the lone super power to shape the direction of the world. In the time since a lot has happened. Globalization has accelerated. Terrorist groups replaced foreign nation-states as the chief threat to our borders. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drained our treasury, lost us lives, and diminished our global standing. Maybe most important though, China emerged as a super power and Russia took a newly aggressive posture towards us under Vladimir Putin. A new anti-democratic consensus emerged among our rivals, challenging our world view. Attempts at more normal relations with Cuba and Iran didn’t go very well. Amidst all this, we had our first post-World War II Presidency where the United States questioned our own commitment to our European alliance. In other words, the world just ain’t what it used to be, and I’m not even diving into global issues like climate change.
Presidents Clinton and Obama faced Supreme Courts that were at times adversarial, but they had 5-4 conservative majorities. During their Presidencies, the Solicitor General could defend government actions at the court by focusing on one or two potential swing justices. Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy could be persuaded to allow the government to act on legitimate issues and even to protect the rights of the marginalized on some matters. President Biden faces a Supreme Court, and federal court system radicalized by Donald Trump. There are now six Republican appointees on the bench, and the Biden Administration needs to win over two of Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. The court is showing an open willingness to ignore precedent and act from the bench that we haven’t seen in generations. Worse yet, four of the six Republican appointees are likely to be there for decades to come, so change is very unlikely to come to that branch. Civil rights and government power are likely to be seriously narrowed, and the only option President Biden and future successors have to push back is to eventually either try to get Congress to expand the court (dead end right now) or provoke a Constitutional crisis. This is not workable.
Congress no longer works. There simply aren’t dealmakers on the Hill to get much done with anymore. Like his recent Democratic predecessors, President Biden got a stimulus bill through to deal with the economy, and one major generational bill (infrastructure), and then everything ground to a halt. Even consensus issues like insulin prices, gun safety measures, and raising the minimum wage to at least $12 go to Congress to die. Narrow Democratic majorities are undone by both the filibuster and more aggressive House progressives forcing demands on bills that can’t be squared up. The reality is that Democrats are unlikely to see massive majorities into the future either. With the Rockefeller Republicans long dead, and the Blue Dog Democrats close behind, there’s simply no one to make deals with on Capitol Hill, no way to build legislative consensus. Democrats can only pass legislation where they either have near unanimous support in their own caucus of both houses, or where the bill is so non-controversial that everyone is ready to go along. This is a problem for a nation facing crises with climate change, guns, public education, immigration, and health care. The main goal of many new members of Congress is to get a seat on an oversight committee where they can yell at witnesses and use props to get internet attention, not to get a seat on Appropriations where they can find actual solutions. In short, Congress doesn’t work.
Once upon a time, the Republican Party was an actual governing party. No Child Left Behind was their education policy. Welfare Reform was an actual bill. There was a bipartisan “Gang of 8” immigration bill that John McCain and George W. Bush tried to pass. President Nixon (!) created the EPA. When deficits soared after the 1981 tax cuts, Presidents Reagan and Bush 41 accepted the reality that some tax increases were necessary. President Bush 43 sent record funding to Africa to fight the AIDS epidemic. Some of this was good policy, much of it in my opinion was bunk- but these were policy positions. A political party must have some ideas if they want to be a political party. Basically since President Bush’s failed 2005 attempt at reforming Social Security, the Republican Party has completely abandoned any sort of coherent policies in favor of slogans and “own the libs.” The GOP of today is a grievance party, nothing more and nothing less. They want to cut off immigration with a wall on the border, shame transgender athletes, and make voting harder if they don’t win elections. During the Trump White House their only major achievements on Capitol Hill were a massive amount of federal judges, a major tax cut bill, and “phase 1” of criminal justice reform, which was basically all the really easy stuff nobody objected to. While they talked about major changes to NAFTA and trade agreements, the changes we got were virtually nonexistent. They promised a border wall, but never delivered it. Basically, you got infrastructure week, on repeat, with no infrastructure bill. It should come as no shock that they are proposing no solution to get more workers into the supply chain right now, or that their plan for gas prices is “drill baby, drill,” when we drilled more in 2021 than we did in 2017. They are not a serious party. Their most “successful” policy in implementation was banning Muslims from entering the country for no reason. This is our “partner” party to negotiate with, a party that idolizes Jim Jordan and nominates Herschel Walker and Dr. Oz for Senate. The GOP is completely broken.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Joe Biden contends with a Democratic Party that more accepted him than wanted him. Had it not been for the wisdom of Black voters coalescing behind President Biden in South Carolina, would white moderate Dems have got their act together and coalesced behind the only electable candidate in the field? While the party rallied behind the Biden-Harris ticket during the election, the White House has faced more attacks from inside the party than any in recent memory. Congressional Democrats and Vice-President Gore had a rally for President Clinton when he was impeached, while Joe Lieberman’s career ended after he opposed Barack Obama in 2008. Today, Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer take to Twitter regularly to criticize President Biden for not using an executive order to forgive student loan debt at levels he never promised to during the campaign. AOC and “The Squad” mostly voted against Biden’s biggest achievement as President, the infrastructure bill. Vice-President Harris routinely faces tough articles from “inside sources” at the White House, criticizing her work and staff members exiting the building. There is open talk of who should run for President in 2024, from Democratic sources, if President Biden does not. When the President speaks on matters of policy, as he recently did about Taiwan, anonymous White House sources race to the media to “correct” what he said to meet their policy objectives. In short, the President and Vice-President do not enjoy unanimous support from their party, far from. Some of this is kind of obvious- in an era where identity and “self expression” drive our politics, an old, straight, white man is leading the Democratic Party, and a chunk of the party wishes they had a different voice. The bigger problem that President Biden faces that President Clinton never really faced, and President Obama only kind of faced, is a shifting geography of Democratic elected officials and activists. The large bulk of Democratic members of Congress, state legislators, and municipal leaders represent super blue urban areas and very diverse suburbs. Most Democratic votes and donations come from those districts. Unfortunately there are not enough of those districts to build a working majority, and people who want White Houses and Congressional majorities need broader electoral appeal than these folks want. When you combine those geographic tensions with a louder, more independent critics class inside the party, you get a President facing larger scale defections in his party than we’ve seen since the 1980 primary season. There is simply now a chunk of voters left of the political center now who demand either a more leftist ideology from the party, or an identity for the party that matches their view of where the votes are from. Joe Biden doesn’t really meet either of those demands, and so he lacks the rock solid support of Democrats in the recent past. While the reality is that these demands make the party unelectable, trying to convince some people of that is seemingly impossible.
Joe Biden inherited a pandemic, a government rocked by scandal, an economy that was shut down, a Capitol that had just been the victim of an attempted coup, and a job that was already extremely difficult because of trends facing our nation that I outlined above. Some of the problems he’s had were predictable, others were not. I have to wonder out loud if there was ever going to be a way to appease the nation in his position. Governing is hard enough, doing it while at the center of a hurricane is nearly impossible. I think he’s doing a good job, I’m just increasingly wondering if anybody cares.