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Is Just Staying Afloat the GOP's Endgame?
In a recent column, Commentary’s Noah Rothman laid out what he believed the GOP’s “glaringly obvious” issue set should be, going up against the Democrats in the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election:
“It’s the persistence of school closures, remote learning protocols, half-days, and ‘zoom in a room’ proctoring in defiance of everything we know to be reasonable protocols. It’s the unjustifiably massive spending programs and giveaways to Democratic constituent groups under the guise of COVID relief. It’s the rising cost of consumer goods, the threat of inflation, and the administration’s own admission that borrowing costs will go up as a result. And, most important, it’s a forward-looking optimism about this country, which is not racist, not economically moribund, and is emerging from, not languishing in, the depths of a pandemic.”
It's the makings of a good campaign platform — simple, topical, and likely to resonate with a large number of Americans (not just Republicans).
The problem, as Rothman points out, is that this isn't the type of narrative that energizes today’s Republican activist class. What gets them excited, says Rothman, is “the notion that they are beset on all sides by a hostile culture.”
“Of that impulse,” had adds, “Donald Trump was the perfect avatar, and it helps explain why the GOP just can’t quit him. So, when one of their members [like Liz Cheney] reminds them of their addiction, it represents an intolerable threat to their own self-conception.”
Rothman is right, and as someone who genuinely wants to see the GOP get its act together, in order to effectively oppose the Democratic Party’s overreach and bad policies (hopefully with some good ideas and smart policies of their own), it’s difficult to see how Republicans can emerge from this self-inflicted rut... at least anytime soon.
A big part of the problem is that much of today’s politics are media-driven, and aimed directly at grievance-culture consumers on both sides of the aisle. Media infotainers and media-focused politicians who are effective at tapping into that culture have become the nation’s top opinion and narrative makers. And far too often, they use conspiracy theories, straw men, defamatory attacks, and other bad-faith mechanisms to keep their audience tuned in and coming back for more.
This has steadily dragged both political parties away from an interest in effective governance, and toward cheap-date pandering to a lowest common denominator. The result is that many elected leaders are left with little pressure to produce actual solutions (or anything of real substance)… and even less pressure to appeal for support from the broader electorate.
Right now, the parties are perhaps weaker than they've ever been, and in desperate need of a Moonstruck style “snap out of it” moment to break them of the spell. As a conservative looking in an embarrassment at an impotent GOP, still claiming to be the "conservative" party as high-ranking members engage in Twitter-style culture battles amidst a progressive steamrolling of U.S. policy, I'm thinking the Republicans could especially use a stiff back-hand.
Liz Cheney tried to deliver one, for the sake of her party and the country. For that she was punished, and will likely be primaried out of office next year. While a lot of Republican voters are assuredly saying "good riddance," a lot of non-Republicans and even less-Trumpy Republicans are shaking their heads in disgust.
The cancelling of Cheney from her House leadership position was significant in a number of ways, including in regard to the aforementioned broader electorate. Some within the GOP argued that Cheney’s refusal to excuse or ignore Trump’s efforts to steal the election (along with his role in the January 6th attack) was a distraction for Republicans. I’m sure it was, since the party has decided — out of fear of losing their base — that they guy who cost them so much must continue on as its leader.
And therein lies the problem. Trump is the ultimate distraction for the GOP. He's the guy who can't stop talking about the 2020 election, repeating the big lie over and over again that it was rigged and that he actually won that. He's the reason that people in the media keep pressing Republicans to comment on the topic, and he's the reason that Cheney keeps responding with the unabashed truth — a truth that every American who cares about their country and its system of democratic governance should proudly support.
But the distractions go beyond that. The former president is back online every day engaging in personal beefs (almost entirely with other Republicans) and supposed (but rather silly) culture battles that he frames as vitally important to America's future.
With Trump and his ego staying on as the standard-bearers of Republican politics (a choice the GOP has consciously made out of fear of its base), the party’s platform will continue to be one outlined by grievance, fearmongering, and conspiratorial recklessness. It’s a platform that undeniably earns big, lucrative television ratings and web-clicks, but it proved to be an electoral loser in 2018 and 2020, seemingly unable to co-exist with optimistic, persuasive, kitchen-table ideas like the ones Rothman prescribed.
Another limiting factor with relying almost entirely on cultural grievances and deference to a defeated blowhard is that most of the gripes that come from it (even the legitimate ones) don’t have a government solution. Animatedly airing frustration over cultural decay may keep a political base together, but it’s not all that compelling to people outside of that base who watch such displays and can’t figure out how in the heck their vote for a politician will remedy the presented grievance.
None of these things seem to matter much to the party, including Lindsey Graham who's been making it very clear lately that he doesn't believe the GOP can move on without Trump. He also said they can't grow without Trump.
The latter is particular amusing, not just because Trump handily lost the election, and then lost the U.S. Senate for the Republicans a few weeks later. As National Review's Kevin Williamson wrote the other day, "One in six of the people who identified as Republicans on Election Day in 2020 no longer associate themselves with the Republican party — only 25 percent of American voters do. That’s the political price of January 6 and Trump’s post-election shenanigans."
Sadly, the only leaders who've paid any kind of price for January 6, and Trump's "post-election shenanigans," are people like Liz Cheney... for telling the truth about it. And if you don't think independent voters have noticed, think again.
Is the situation hopeless for the GOP?
From a purely political perspective (at least in the short term), the answer is no.
As I said, the Democrats have their own problems in this arena. Kowtowing to their base's left-wing, media-driven instincts (like "defunding the police") cost the party congressional seats in 2020 that they weren't expecting to lose.
More importantly, narrow margins in the House, recent redistricting, and a Democrat occupying the White House make for a very favorable environment for Republicans going into the 2022 midterms. In fact, the GOP only has to pick up a measly six seats to take back the House majority.
If that's the only measure of success that Kevin McCarthy and other Trump-servile leaders care about at this point, they'll almost assuredly be able to pat themselves on the backs for the clearing of such a low hurdle.
But then what? Will they actually take advantage of their newly gained political foothold? Or is just getting a better seat at the table, and a louder megaphone from the which to fight news-cycle culture battles, the GOP's endgame?
As I wrote a couple weeks ago, there are very serious issues that need to be addressed in this country. Some are imminently catastrophic, and they have absolutely nothing to do with Dr. Suess, Facebook, or alleged bamboo ballots in Arizona. Yet, addressing the serious stuff isn't what the Republican base wants anymore, and leaders in the party are following their lead. It's why a charismatic, twice-impeached, defeated former president — who denied our country of the peaceful transfer of power and incited a deadly insurrection — is still the party's leader.
You know, it almost seems as if Republicans want to remain the minority party — to merely stay afloat by solidifying their base with daily doses of cable-news style cultural outrage, while coming under little pressure to produce substantive reforms, present an appealing vision for the future, and actually grow the party. It may sound cynical and ridiculous for me to say that... but I've witnessed far more ridiculous things in our politics (especially in recent years) to warrant that cynicism. You all have too.
If that is indeed the GOP's endgame, the party will assuredly get exactly what they deserve.