It was not supposed to be like this. Republican Party leaders in Washington and throughout the country railed against Obamacare for seven years, wanted to take a butcher’s knife to entitlements such as Medicaid, and most of all, planned major changes in the tax code to make the rich richer.
We need a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, they said. With substantial stirred-up opposition to Obamacare and the considerable help of gerrymandered districts, with some voter suppression thrown in for good measure, the Republicans in 2010 won the House. In the subsequent elections they increased their majority to the largest number for the party in decades.
We need a Republican majority in the Senate, they said. As in House races, the significant opposition to Obamacare fueled the Republican takeover of the Senate in 2014.
And finally, we need a Republican president to sign all the great roll-back legislation that will be passed, they said. With 80,000 well-positioned votes in three key states and with some help from Vladimir Putin, the party elected Donald Trump president. So finally all the pieces of the puzzle were assembled to legislate a conservative revolution.
By changing the rules of the Senate the Republicans were able to put a far-right justice on the Supreme Court. Trump has signed executive orders by the dozens, but most of them were for show. Cabinet members who have best demonstrated their mettle by a go-around-the-table show of ass-kissing were appointed. Some of them still seem to have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time. It reminds me of the scene in Blazing Saddles when Governor LePetomane signed legislation creating the William J. LePetomane Gambling Casino for the Insane and then complained that one of the members of his cabinet didn’t give him an honorific “harrumph.”
The one Trump appointee who seems to be having a grand old time, from his point of view, is Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt. He is moving at break-neck speed to do everything he can to turn over “environmental protection” to the oil and coal companies and the Brothers Koch.
When it comes to real legislating, however, 2017 has so far not been a bang-up year for the Party. House Republicans failed in their first attempt to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, and then just squeaked by in passing the bill that even Trump described as “mean,” a bill that had the support of 16 percent of the American people.
Now it is the Senate’s turn. The bill that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell placed on the table is not any more popular than the House version. The two wings of the Party have spent the past two weeks staking out their positions and sniping at the other side. The Independence Day recess seems to have made it even less likely that a bill can be passed and sent to Trump before the August recess. (Doesn’t it seem that all the congressional recesses make them appear like an elementary school?)
The dreamers like Speaker Paul Ryan still talk like everything is going as planned, with tax reform and infrastructure spending teed up and ready to proceed just as soon as the “repeal and replace” bill is taken care of. I doubt that Ryan, McConnell or other party leaders really think they can thread all of the needles that need to be threaded to get all that legislation through.
As important as those priorities may be, they will get trumped by two more, at this time, more important, urgent, can’t possibly be delayed issues. Raising the debt ceiling and passing a 2018 federal budget cannot be put off for long, and as Trump might say, they are complicated issues. Who knew?
In both the upcoming debt ceiling and budget debates the Republican Party’s two bases will be challenging one another severely. The far-right, having grown comfortable with the luxury of not being in control of all the levers of government, may want to use the two financial issues to impose their machete-like will on domestic spending and will insist on major cuts as their price for support. The establishment wing of the party, particularly those representing urban and suburban constituencies, will resist that approach.
We have seen this show before. After the two wings of the Republican Party fail to agree on the debt ceiling and the budget, the despised House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer will be brought in to rescue the whatever limited number of Republican members of Congress who are prepared to raise the debt ceiling and pass a budget. This is why John Boehner is sitting somewhere at pool side, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of merlot in the other.
So that is a summary of how Republicans are challenging Republicans in Washington. There seems to be an even more interesting intramural party show playing out far removed from Washington.
In Kansas the Republican controlled State Legislature overrode vetoes of new taxes and spending by Governor and soon-to-be-ambassador-to-somewhere-far-removed-from-Topeka Sam Brownback. Basically they are reversing Brownback’s let-a-state-show-how-real-Republican-tax-cutting-philosophy can work in practice. What’s the matter with Kansas?
Similar challenges and legislative fights have also broken out in other states including Arkansas and South Carolina.
Even more interesting than the state legislative challenges is the response of states around the country to the request by Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity for extensive data about voters’ names, middle names or initials, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, party registration, voting history, portions of voters’ social security numbers and other assorted things such as felony convictions and military status.
In one form or another forty-four states thus far, including those managed by Republicans as well as those managed by Democrats, are declining to provide any information other than what is already available on the websites of appropriate state offices, usually the secretaries of state. The Commission effort is being led by the Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has made a career out of conjuring up false voter fraud theories and then pushing efforts to suppress voting.
Some of the states’ responses to the Kobach request for the data have been just polite denials. Others, however, have been more energetic. My favorite was the answer from the Republican Secretary of State in Mississippi, Delbert Hosemann, who told Kobach and company that they “can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great state to launch from. Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our state’s right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes.”
The thought of all the requested data being funneled into some computer server in the White House is frightening. I could see at a future Trump-Putin meeting (okay, I couldn’t see it, just imagine it) where Trump shakes Putin’s hand and slips him something as Trump mumbles “you’ll like what you find on this flash drive, Vlad.”
The skirmishes that have occurred in Washington concerning proposed legislation have mostly seen Republicans acting politely to one another and to Trump. How that might change if the key first year of the Trump administration fades away with no legislative achievements will be very interesting.
But even more interesting is how Republicans in the states are standing up to and defying Trump and his Commission. This action will probably not be replicated in other matters, but open differences at this stage are rather remarkable.
Democrats have much more of a history of intra-party fights and there will be some new fighting coming up. But having the Republicans control all the levers of power and then dividing up into two openly warring factions is a fascinating political development. Democrats are warned: do not overdose on schadenfreude.