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Republicans' unhinged moderation
Their policy ambitions are getting smaller even as they get crazier
A few self-promotional notes! You can see my Bloomberg column about how Secretary Mayor Pete can avert the looming mass transit crisis, read a brief plug for One Billion Americans in the NYT’s 74 favorite facts of 2020, or listen to me talk on the Strong Towns podcast. And, of course, you can spread the Slow Boring love by sharing this post.
But on to the main event: watching Donald Trump’s conduct in office and especially his conduct — and that of a substantial number of his co-partisans — since the election, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Republican Party has become a dangerous authoritarian movement.
Sixteen years ago, when I was young and the blogosphere was in its heyday, the two biggest domestic issues in the country were same-sex marriage and privatization of Social Security.
Marriage equality was unpopular. So unpopular that nobody of consequence in Democratic Party politics would endorse it. But despite its unpopularity and the lack of practical political momentum behind it, Republicans were using it as a wedge issue by campaigning on the need to amend the US Constitution (and various state constitutions) to clarify that marriage is between a man and a woman. On Social Security, the recently re-elected George W. Bush was preparing a big push for privatization. At the time, moderate Democrats generally agreed on the need for Social Security cuts but mostly didn’t favor privatization, while liberals hoped moderates would pipe down for a few months to make space for the party to coalesce around criticism of privatization.
Mike Pence and Paul Ryan during this period were pitching a plan that was more right-wing than the Bush plan.
Today’s Republicans seem much nuttier than the Republicans of that era. They are led by Donald Trump, for starters, a corrupt clown who’s abjectly unfit for office. More than a dozen GOP senators are lining up behind Trump’s effort to declare the election fraudulent and have the results somehow tossed out. A phone call released over the weekend shows Trump nakedly asking Georgia elected officials to help him steal the election. Strikingly, the group backing Trump is disproportionately composed of newer members of the GOP caucus suggesting that Trump-esque nuttery has the wind at its back. And people who embrace loonier stuff than Trump like out-and-out Q people are coming.
Republicans, in other words, have become much more unhinged. More conspiratorial, more unethical, more flagrantly dishonest (remember how much effort Bush would put into crafting slippery and misleading rhetoric that met the standard of technical accuracy?), and more potentially damaging to the basic foundations of the Republic.
At the same time, if you compare the current situation to the winter after Bush’s reelection — or even the winter after the 2010 GOP midterm sweep or the winter after Trump’s surprising win in 2016 — Republicans have clearly moved to the center on concrete policy issues.
The GOP has moved to the center
Chris Hayes did a couple of tweets a little while back that I think capture the weirdness of assessing the contemporary GOP.
His point is basically that they are intellectually bankrupt:
And I think that’s about right. Despite the various noises about creating a “pro-worker” or “populist” strain of conservative politics, it’s gotten nowhere in practice, just as the overhyped “reformocon” movement didn’t amount to anything.
But Republicans really have changed — they’ve dropped their policy ambitions.
You can see that in reactions to the election. Democrats felt crestfallen about capturing the White House and holding the House with a narrowed majority. That’s because even a moderate Democrat like Joe Biden actually has a pretty ambitious policy agenda that seems largely dead even if Democrats do manage to pull off wins in the Georgia Senate races. Conversely, Republicans have done almost no recriminations because there’s no policy agenda they’re particularly excited about. Gridlock is good enough for a party that’s given up.
Republicans dropped privatizing Social Security a while ago.
As recently as 10 years ago, the GOP was fighting against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal — today they’ve given up on marriage and are fighting about trans rights questions that weren’t on the policy agenda at all in the recent past.
As of the Obama/Trump lame-duck period, Paul Ryan was still trying to push his plan to privatize Medicare. Trump mostly let Congressional Republicans roll him on policy, but this got nowhere.
Republicans never officially admitted that they’d given up on repealing Obamacare, but during Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, we all learned that conservatives regard it as a slander to accuse Republican lawyers of believing their own legal theory that was supposed to get it repealed. Now, nobody thinks the Court will toss the law even with a 6-3 GOP majority.
The CARES Act was much larger than the Obama-era stimulus bill, which you could chalk up to pure partisanship since Trump was president, but the lame duck stimulus bill that will mostly benefit Joe Biden was nearly as big as ARRA.
A pretty exciting bipartisan energy bill passed as part of the omnibus. This is perhaps the clearest sign of the “unhinged moderation” phenomenon, as Trump is an outright climate denier in a way that Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney never were, but the actual policy is more supportive of zero-carbon energy.
Republicans had these big plans to repeal the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, but it never got taken up in the Senate and, after 2017, never got mentioned again.
Ryan, again, had an ambitious policy vision that Dylan Matthews memorably dubbed a “war on the poor.” A somewhat watered-down version of this came up in the House as Welfare Reform 2.0, but like Dodd-Frank repeal, Mitch McConnell never took it up, and we haven’t heard anything about this in years.
I don’t want to overstate the case here. The Trump administration still did a million things with work requirements and other administrative burdens to make the welfare state stingier. Trump decided somewhat arbitrarily that SSDI isn’t really part of Social Security and did try to cut that. Republicans almost repealed the Affordable Care Act. Trump did a lot of terrible things on air pollution.
And last, but by no means least, it’s certainly possible that 98 percent of Congressional Republicans still agree with 98 percent of Paul Ryan’s ideas, and if they win power they will implement all that stuff. Certainly that’s the argument I would make if I were running a campaign against one of them, and I think an informed citizen should worry about that unless or until that agenda gets explicitly disavowed.
But Chris’ point in his tweet is right: if you go by publicly available information, there is no big conservative policy agenda.
Then, of course, there’s immigration.
The immigration exception
What’s true is that Trump and the whole Trump-era GOP are well to the right of Bush or John McCain on immigration.
But it’s worth having some perspective here; Bush and McCain were always Republican outliers on this. Indeed, the majority of Congressional Republicans felt so strongly about being tough on immigration that they bucked Bush on comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. We know that partisanship and presidential leadership are big forces in politics (look how Republicans lined up behind Trump), but anti-immigration sentiment was so deep in the GOP that Bush couldn’t override it.
And both parties were more divided on this topic in the past. Here’s Bernie Sanders going on Lou Dobbs’ show to complain about the immigration reform bill.
Three Senate Republicans voted for the DREAM Act in 2010, but it didn’t pass because Democrats Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, Kay Hagan, and Mark Pryor all opposed it.
What you have today is a Republican Party that is uniformly hostile to immigration in a way that the GOP of 16 years ago was not, met by a Democratic Party that’s uniformly friendly to it. But Trump-style views were already the GOP mainstream at that time. Back in 1996, Bob Dole was pushing to ban the children of undocumented immigrants from attending public school — something that I believe was discussed in the Trump White House but dismissed as too extreme.
So I think the basic point holds. There’s a set of issues including immigration, abortion, and gun regulation where the 2020 GOP is uniformly conservative in a way that the 2005 GOP was not (and by the same token, the Democrats have gotten more uniformly liberal). But the party has not actually moved right on those topics; it’s just gotten more unified, while it has moved left on LGBT issues and considerably reduced its ambition on reducing the size and scope of the welfare state.
The big problem is that they’re totally nuts.
The rise of the Banana Republicans
Current conservative opinion on the “stop the theft” stuff contains a broad spectrum ranging from sincere enthusiasts to the people at National Review who are doing a good job of pushing back.
But you can see in Newsmax gaining market share relative to Fox by embracing more conspiracy theories that there is actually limited scope for any individual to make a difference here. And the Congressional Republicans backing Trump most loudly are clearly the ones with the future on their side. That’s been the case throughout Trump’s presidency, where criticism of him has normally come from people like Jeff Flake or Bob Corker who are on their way out the door or the current Reasonable Troika of Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, and Susan Collins, none of whom have any down-the-road political ambitions.
This is, I think, a secondary consequence of polarization along the lines of education, trust, and openness. Conspiratorial-minded people used to be more evenly distributed between the parties and so were high-minded proceduralists. But just as Democrats now do better in favored quarter suburbs and worse in rural areas, they do better with process enthusiasts and worse with conspiratorial people. So it’s now a bit of a self-propelling machine that could easily end up in a very scary place if the dice land in just the right way.
At the same time, I do want to keep in mind the considerations I offered in “How To Be Less Full of Shit.” I see a lot of people “predicting” future GOP election theft or a slip back into a Jim Crow-esque collapse of democracy primarily as a way of expressing the normative view that what Republicans are doing is bad.
I don’t think I have a strong view as to how likely a GOP election theft in the near future is. But consider these two possible scenarios for 2024:
Despite a clear Electoral College win for Joe Biden, GOP officials in Congress and state legislatures steal the election for Don Junior.
Instead of getting 47 percent of the vote, Don Junior gets 48 percent of the vote which lets him win Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania and therefore the election.
The banal scenario where Republicans once again gain power while Democrats win the most votes seems a lot more likely to me. And in 2024, Democrats will be defending Senate seats in West Virginia, Ohio, and Montana that they would all likely lose in that scenario, along with at least one or two of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, and Nevada. And since Republicans will get to re-optimize their gerrymanders after the Census, instead of the current narrow Democratic majority, you’d get a GOP House on that vote, too.
This is the paradox of the moment. The GOP’s double movement would actually make sense for the Democratic Party: with the Senate map and various gerrymanders skewed so heavily against Democrats, it would make sense for the party to give up on some of its more controversial policy ideas, and it would also make sense for the party’s base to adopt some of the attributes of an insurrectionary, anti-institutional movement since it is consistently receiving more votes without gaining power. But instead, we’ve seen this sort of behavior from the party that’s advantaged by all the unfair aspects of the system.
Can this really last?
The big question about all of this: how real is it?
Conservatives don’t seem to enjoy hashing out big tactical and strategic arguments in the media the same way liberals do, and conservative media mostly focuses on owning the libs rather than internecine fighting. So has the right really given up on slashing Medicaid, privatizing Medicare, and strangling SNAP and other welfare state programs or have they just stopped talking about it?
Not talking about it turns out to be a really good political strategy. But what we saw in 2018 is that you can’t enact major legislation without people noticing and it getting talked about a lot, and even a distinctly watered-down version of the Ryan agenda led to a Democratic landslide in 2018. What we saw in 2020 is that the electorate has the memory of a slug, and if you want to suddenly stop talking about something and start saying you love pre-existing conditions protections, lots of people are happy to believe you.
If Republicans do win in 2024 and then manage to govern the way they talk — lots of culture war trolling and pro-cop stuff, minimal changes on the economy — that could really usher in a very new era of American politics, one the GOP will probably dominate, but in which economic policy might become much more interventionist over time. Alternatively, if it just turns into 2017 all over again but without John McCain to save them from themselves, then that would shake up the culture war dividing lines of American politics in a much bigger way than the 2018 midterms, likely leading to even larger Democratic victories. It’s really not clear to me which direction conservatives are thinking of heading in or even where the discussions are taking place. But either way, if you want to understand the current state of American politics, you can’t just focus on the loopy aspects of the rising trends in the GOP — you need to note the simultaneous backing away from the economic policy ideas that held sway in the aughts.