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A week after the midterm elections, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri offered a cold—but probably correct—diagnosis of the wreckage facing his party. Working-class, independent voters who had previously cast ballots for Barack Obama and Donald Trump had stayed home, thwarting the GOP’s hopes of a broad House majority and a narrow one in the Senate. The Red Wave forecast by so many never materialized, and the soul-searching had begun.
“I think that this election was the funeral for the Republican Party as we know it,” said Hawley, adding: “We need to have a conversation about our core convictions as a party. Clearly, this party is going to have to actually be different or we are not going to be a majority party in this country.”
It was a bold statement considering the narrow majority Republicans had secured in the House, prompting some to accurately predict that Speaker-in-Waiting Kevin McCarthy was going to have to capitulate to the party’s fringe to secure the gavel. Ahead of his shambolic leadership election, McCarthy hustled and caved to his far right. As for the White House, McCarthy told reporters he could “work with anybody who wants to work to make America better,” and expected a cool relationship with the Biden White House to warm once he held the gavel.
Well, that hasn’t exactly unfolded as planned; Biden and McCarthy haven’t spoken since their first chat in February. And, it turns out, McCarthy and his fellow Republicans continue to push an agenda that may well serve the party’s loudest voices cheering for conflict, but not its chase of a stable, predictable governing majority.
With headwinds facing Biden’s likely re-election campaign and frustrations with Washington showing no signs of weakening, the fortunes of the modern GOP should be far brighter than they are. Sure, a tarnished ex-President who is under criminal indictment and maintains a vise-like grip on the party is partly to blame, but that alone doesn’t explain the ways in which GOP leaders are choosing to present themselves to voters at every turn.
Just consider the messages coming from House Republicans on Monday. McCarthy traveled to the beating heart of the global economy—Wall Street—to demand deep cuts in government spending in exchange for a vote that would let the government pay bills already accrued, a threat evocative of the 2011 debt ceiling showdown that sent markets into a crisis and cost Americans $1.3 billion. Meanwhile, his fellow House Republicans gathered nearby in lower Manhattan, employing dodgy crime stats at a show trial-esque hearing aimed at discrediting Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is prosecuting Donald Trump’s fraud case.
Not to be too blunt, but neither of these headlines seem geared toward a Hawleyan reboot of the Republican Party. Spite can be fun, but it isn’t a policy. A global economic crisis is never good, but what’s potentially in the hopper amid the debt ceiling standoff would be a fiscal doomsday, with one analysis of the still-forming GOP debt plan agreement predicting it could cost more than 700,000 jobs. The policies put forward by McCarthy—no raised taxes, no touching of Social Security or Medicare—would demand a whopping 52% cut from everything else on the federal books to meet the goal of a balanced budget within a decade. And polls show a majority of Americans approve of Bragg’s prosecution of Trump.
But the tone-deaf messaging is not exclusive to the House. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—perhaps the most serious potential challenger to Trump’s re-nomination at the moment—signed a six-week ban on abortions in his state during a private ceremony last week, and followed that days later by threatening to build a prison next to the spot many families regard as the happiest place on Earth. Florida’s abortion ban comes in the immediate wake of a stunning upset in Wisconsin, where voters showed that tightening access to abortion is a political loser, and a year after voters in Kansas did the same. The culture wars in general have left parents exhausted, and the coordinated anti-trans rights campaigns coming out of Florida and other states may work with the party’s base but do little to help expand the GOP tent.
Then consider the personal. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the groundbreaking California lawmaker who is retiring at the end of this term, has been absent from Washington since being hospitalized in February for shingles. Feinstein’s absence has left Democrats in something of a limbo, given Senate rules, and incapable of doing one of only things they actually have the power to do with a Republican-controlled House, which is to confirm judges. Reluctantly, Feinstein asked to be temporarily removed from the Judiciary Committee so another Democrat could serve and push through nominees; Republicans on Monday blocked that effort, and may pull the same move if Feinstein resigns and Democrats try again to fill her seat on the committee. (After all, there is precedent for denying lawmakers’ requests to change committees, dating back to 1891.) While this is a fight mostly being consumed in Washington, the decision by Senate Republicans to pull the kind of hardball tactics more in league with their House brethren further signals to those in the political middle about the party’s goals, and governing isn’t on the list.
Put plainly, Republicans from Washington, D.C. to Tallahassee seem to be chasing political duds in order to placate the party’s fringes. It may feel good to go on cable and insinuate Biden is senile or criminal, and the party’s hacks may giggle. But that’s not a formula to win over swing voters who are watching from afar and just hoping Washington can remember that there are real people with real interests that need some real tending. This performative version of conservatism may feel fun in the moment, but it’s no substitute for long-term control of the gavels.
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