With just five weeks to go until the GOP will vote and try to elect a Speaker, it’s worth exploring why it feels like the Republican Party is not only in disarray but will likely wind up shooting itself in the face many times over the next two years. (Excuse the reference, Stewart Rhodes.)
The GOP’s problems indeed run deep—so deep that it’s fair to say they are intractable because they are core to what the GOP has allowed itself to become.
Three such deep problems come readily to mind.
The GOP is an Anti-government Party That Is Trying to Govern
A central tenet of Republicanism is that government is the problem and needs to get out of the way. That’s probably why when Republicans actually take the reins of government, it feels more than a bit awkward.
In GOP majorities and presidents past, Republicans spent much of their energy deregulating and stripping agencies of their authority, which frequently landed us in trouble in our financial sector, our environment, and the equitable distribution of capital.
But when we are in a moment of multiple crises, as we now find ourselves with high inflation, a lingering pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and multiple disasters resulting from climate change, being “anti-government” means the GOP has few if any actual solutions to offer.
For example, an overwhelming majority of Americans recently polled want the House GOP majority to focus on inflation and not Hunter Biden, which really isn’t so much to ask. After all, inflation is largely what House Republicans campaigned on.
But the party instead seems intent on ignoring this sentiment and, once again, choosing grievance over governance, politics over people. At a recent presser by Republican Representative James Comer of Kentucky, a reporter dared to ask an oversight question about another topic, but Comer wasn’t having it.
“If we could keep it about Hunter Biden, this is kind of a big deal, we think.”
The few substantive proposals we have heard from the GOP leadership include some true head scratchers when it comes to winning over key constituencies.
South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune, the number two guy among Senate Republicans, recently reiterated the GOP threat to paralyze the government by blocking debt limit increases in order to force spending cuts and changes to Social Security and other entitlements.
That is unlikely to go over well with elderly voters on fixed incomes.
The last time they tried this level of brinksmanship in 2011, Standard and Poors downgraded America’s debt rating, at huge cost to the country, while financial markets were shaken badly.
The GOP wound up caving anyway.
The GOP Conducts Investigations in Search of Crimes
Anyone who has suffered through the Whitewater and Benghazi hearings knows that the GOP begins by throwing a great deal of spaghetti at the wall, or perhaps ketchup these days.
Unlike the January 6 Committee hearings or the two impeachment hearings of the former President, Republican-led hearings don’t seem to begin with the commission of a crime and work backward to build a case establishing guilt.
Rather, as cartoonist Dan Wasserman noted in the 1990s during Whitewater, it’s more like:
- “We have the suspect!”
- “We have the evidence!”
- “We have the investigation!”
- “Now all we need is the crime!”
Kris Kolesnik, who spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley, calls these “reverse engineered investigations.”
They start in one place and meander around until, the GOP hopes, they find something that was questionable, then they blow it up out of all proportion with the help of the media, particularly Fox News.
There’s a reason that Trump’s allies in Congress love to parrot him by calling any investigations into his overt criminality “witch hunts.” It is part of the standard gaslighting playbook to accuse others of what you yourself are guilty.
Here, there is zero doubt that the targeting of Hunter Biden, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Attorney General Merrick Garland, or others in the administration will devolve into classic witch hunts.
Indeed, there are GOP members already admitting this aloud.
Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the once disgraced member who will be restored to Congressional committees in the new session, warned Democrats recently at a Trump rally:
“We will be investigating and holding people accountable"
"And after we expose the corruption and crimes committed, we can impeach Secretary Mayorkas, we can impeach Merrick Garland, and we can, and we will, impeach Joe Biden.”
The mainstream media and the public need to learn from past examples and call out these hearings as no better than trumped-up investigations in search of crimes. If voters see through the GOP’s charade, they could punish them in the next election.
Republicans should remember what happened after they overstepped their powers by investigating Bill Clinton’s sex life in 1998: The GOP wound up losing House seats in what otherwise should have historically been a good midterm result for Republicans.
GOP Extremism Is Already Locked in
The GOP’s own rules around primaries, its cynical gerrymanders, and the math around the factions in Congress add up to a single, inescapable conclusion: Extremists have the upper hand in the party, and there is little that traditional conservatives or moderates can do to reverse that.
When Trump announced his candidacy, many were skeptical that he would retain the advantage he held during the 2016 race for the GOP presidential nomination.
But Trump still enjoys overwhelming support from his MAGA base, and once again there are apparently multiple candidates vying to take him on, eroding any chance that they can coalesce around a single challenger such as Florida GOP Governor Ron DeSantis—who is also an extremist, it should be noted.
And unlike the Democrats who award proportional convention delegates among the top vote getters for each state, the GOP leaves that allocation up to the Republican parties in the separate states. In many states, they have a winner-take-all system in their GOP primaries, meaning if Trump can garner a plurality of just around 30 percent support, he can often take all of a state’s delegates.
It’s not just the top of the ticket where extremism is rewarded.
The GOP House majority is largely the result of severe gerrymanders, where more die-hard Republican voters in the primaries essentially determine their Congressional representatives and the Democrats can mount no effective challenge in the generals.
Some of the most extreme GOP officials, such as Ohio Republican Representative Jim Jordan, hold their seats only because the GOP drew the lines to keep them in power. Jordan’s own district resembles a duck and stretches across 14 counties and would take three hours to drive through.
For officials like Jordan, their “governing” style is unsurprisingly targeted to play to extreme but loyal voters in their base rather than to moderates, who are outnumbered in their own districts. But what plays to the home base well may sour voters generally to the GOP.
The incoming GOP majority has a net approval rating from independents of minus 44, with 62 percent disapproving and only 18 percent approving, according to a recent poll.
Finally, with GOP party leader Kevin McCarthy needing 218 votes to become Speaker in January 2023, he will inevitably need the support of the far-right members of his own party, many of whom have stated they will not support him.
This means McCarthy either will need to cater to their demands to win their support, or he will be tossed in favor of someone who has their backing. Either way, barring an unlikely, surprise alliance between Democrats and GOP moderates in the House, the GOP will shift even farther to the right than it already is and further alienate voters in the center.
With all of these factors baked into the DNA of the GOP, there seems no clear way for it to save itself from within.
And while this rightward lurch will be ugly, loud and alarming, Democrats will have an opportunity to distinguish themselves from the chaos and the conspiracies over the next two years as we approach the all-important 2024 presidential election year.