Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Bending the knee at House Trump

IT MAY BE a rule of electoral politics as much as one of human nature: Live with something you resist long enough and it becomes something you can live with. A byproduct of human adaptability is being adaptable to that which you can’t stand. Over time, we become inured, accustomed, almost indifferent — all the states of indolence that supporters of the Republican agenda according to the Trump White House are counting on.

That’s implicit in the reaction of some deep-red conservatives who have finally bent the knee at House Trump, having reckoned that the status quo in Washington, the devil they know, beats the devil they can’t see coming. That certainty’s led a number of presumed GOP thought leader pols to declare themselves in the tank for President* Trump body and soul.

That same certainty about what’s coming has also led some of the GOP’s more apparently humanist members on the Hill to abandon re-election hopes next year — liberating them to speak their minds about what, in their eyes, is the clear and present danger of Donald Trump.

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Nothing speaks to the curiously bifurcated state of the Republican Party in 2017 like these dueling realities: Mainstream Republicans are calling on each other to get behind a man that few of them trusted, or wanted in the White House — a man who couldn’t have been further from the party mainstream when he was a candidate.

The old guard of Republicans may be slowly passing in its influence; the new guard occasionally shows signs of a nasty streak of pragmatism that just won’t fly at all with the base voters, most of whom are ... the old guard of Republicans.

That’s occasionally. Most of the time, the new guard reads from the same hymnal as the old guard, an act of political xerography that doesn’t expand Republican prospects, or numbers, in the long term the party needs to survive. It’s a course of action imprisoned by its own illogic. Politically, it may be the first sign of a change to come a year from now.

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ON OCT. 26, Jonathan Martin and Jeremy W. Peters of The New York Times wrote what amounted to an obituary for centrist Republican identity in a story that essentially said the Trumpian approach was gaining ground, against all odds. “Despite the fervor of President Trump’s Republican opponents,” they reported, “the president’s brand of hard-edge nationalism — with its gut-level cultural appeals and hard lines on trade and immigration — is taking root within his adopted party, and those uneasy with grievance politics are either giving in or giving up the fight.”

Martin and Peters reported that ”[t]he Grand Old Party risks a longer-term transformation into the Party of Trump,” but that’s already happened — that chameleon shift was ratified on Inauguration Day and it’s been solidifying in our politics and culture ever since. Leave it to Andy Surabian, a Republican Super PAC adviser, to reveal something central to the GOP’s dilemma. “There is zero appetite for the ‘Never Trump’ movement in the Republican Party of today,” Surabian told The Times. “This party is now defined by President Trump and his movement.”

And that’s precisely the problem. It’s a matter of identity. Trump’s pugnacious intransigence is a political liability he’s transformed into something close to an asset. True, it’s led to a following of fiercely partisan Trump loyalists who would gladly die on whatever hill Trump demands. But it’s also provoked the early career exits of several optically centrist Republicans, including Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona; Representatives Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, and others from states likely to be battlegrounds in 2020.

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The GOP identity problem most recently surfaced after the 2012 presidential election, when the party, in full sackcloth and ashes mode, went into a period of reassessment and self-reflection, but preaching an Armageddon only it could believe in. One post-election website, White People Mourning Romney, documented in hundreds of images the dashed hopes of rank-and-file Republicans who’d been so sure that the lifeblood of the national identity, and the nation’s future, ran through their veins and theirs alone.

Certain politicians saw some kind of light; “We’ve got to stop being the stupid party,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal famously cautioned in 2013 (in a statement that struck a lot of people as a through-the-windshield credo that ignored everything in the rear-view mirror). “We’ve got to stop insulting the intelligence of voters,” he said. “We need to trust the smarts of the American people.” But the party’s re-examination of itself in a rapidly, demographically evolving America, didn’t last long.

By the 2014 midterms, party identity was again reconfiguring around its more reliable, politically combative reflexes. It was this repositioning that a certain candidate eventually exploited, expressed and channeled for the 2016 presidential campaign. An antagonism to cultural change was already there, simmering under the surface, dormant in the national zeitgeist. It just needed a wake-up call. It found a wake-up bomb in the person of Donald John Trump.

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NOW, THOUGH, that lightly rejiggered Republican Party faces the existential dilemma it was only starting to address almost five years ago: When what you stand for is rage and bluster, transactions and lines in the sand ... the next question is obvious: What else you got? What else are you? The Republican Party is in no mood for singing Kum Ba Yah across the aisle, not least of all because of something Democrats don’t have much to do with: Republicans are in no mood to sing Kum Ba Yah with each other.

During the deeply partisan debate over the Affordable Care Act, it was evident that some sources of that conflict, that partisanship, came from within the GOP itself. Trump’s prime directive — dismantle Obamacare — was frustrated in recent months by Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and a handful of others that made the difference.

And just below the Oct. 26 page-one Times story that announced the death knell of GOP centrism, another story showed that the death of Republican in-fighting may be greatly exaggerated. Jim Tankersley and Thomas Kaplan of The Times wrote about the tax-cut battle in the House and how “discord grows” within a party “craving harmony.”

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The brewing conflict, they reported, highlights “the increased importance of the tax issue for a fractured party desperate for a legislative victory. The prospect of a once-in-a-generation bill to cut taxes on business and individuals increasingly appears to be the best hope for a party anxious to find common ground and advance an effort that it has long championed as the pinnacle of Republican orthodoxy. It is a bit like having a baby to save a failing marriage.”

Well ... whatever works. Few things, though, could be more obvious; the eagerness of the Republican party to put one in the Win column reveals the depth of the party’s schism, the internal divisions that make getting that victory so important.

Bending the knee at House Trump is a short-term pledge of allegiance. Any such quickie victory takes only small steps toward solving the GOP’s more enduring and foundational challenge: Deciding what it is and what it will be in the decades to come, and how — or whether — the party will matter to an American electorate that looks less and less like the party’s base with every passing year.

And every election.

Image creits: Trump: via @davidaxelrod. Corker: Talking Points memo, Obama wins tweet: White People Mourning Romney (2012).

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