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Last week, Mona Charen published a post on Ricochet, defending the Republican establishment. She began by observing that “The Republican Party is choosing an odd time to commit suicide,” and she rightly drew attention to the fact that “in the Obama era the Democrats lost 13 US Senate seats, 69 House seats, 910 legislative seats, 11 governorships, and 30 legislative chambers.” The only thing that “stood between Republicans and real reform at the federal level was the White House,” she observed, “and the Democrats were sleepwalking toward nominating the least popular major player in American politics.” Then, she rightly noted that the Republicans had “managed to find someone who is even less acceptable,” and she added a few choice words about Donald Trump – all of them, alas, plausible, but (and this may turn out to be important down the road) not all of them, as they pertain to the future, certain.
For the most part, I share Mona’s misgivings. I have followed Donald Trump in the tabloids for decades, and I am no admirer of the man. But I think her analysis of the situation that catapulted him into prominence unsound. Here is what she had to say:
And what sin has brought down this despoiler upon the Republican Party? Why are so many self-styled conservatives complacent about his success? Failure to stop Obamacare? Please. That was never possible with Obama in office. It would have been possible, in fact it was probable, that it would have been replaced if Republicans held majorities in Congress and got an agreeable executive. Now? No. Failure to get control of the border? Illegal immigration from Mexico has slowed to a trickle and, in fact, more Mexicans are now leaving than coming. Failure to defund the Export-Import Bank? Yes, crony capitalism is disgraceful, but . . .
Here are a few words of praise for the Republicans. The Republican Party has become more reform-minded and more conservative over the past 30 years. The Arlen Specters and Bob Packwoods are pretty much gone. In their places are dynamic, smart, and articulate leaders like Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, Cory Gardner, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Ted Cruz, Suzanna Martinez, and Marco Rubio. The party has become more conservative and more ethnically diverse.
Between 2008 and 2014, when Republicans were the minority in the Senate, they blocked cap and trade, the “public option” in Obamacare, and card check. Republicans declined to give President Obama universal pre-K, the “Paycheck Fairness Act,” expanded unemployment benefits, a higher federal minimum wage, varieties of gun control, mandatory paid sick leave, a tax on multinational corporations, higher taxes on individuals, and more. They passed bills authorizing the Keystone pipeline (which was vetoed) and trade promotion authority (the one issue Obama is not wrong about). They endorsed entitlement reform.
The American system is slow and balky by design. It requires maturity and patience to achieve your political goals. Democrats have been remarkably strategic, returning again and again to cherished objectives, whereas Republicans have told themselves that leadership treachery rather than Madisonian architecture accounts for their frustration.
In Mona’s view, the Republicans did as much as they could have done. In her view, the source of our present troubles is not a failure on the part of the Republican establishment to deliver. It is, instead, as she has argued elsewhere, the severe criticism directed at that establishment by the likes of Ted Cruz, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Jim DeMint and his merry lads and lasses at the Heritage Foundation, who asserted that the Republicans had betrayed their constituents.
With this assessment I beg to differ. I believe that the indictment is just and that the Republican establishment is guilty as charged. On Saturday, Mona’s colleague at National Review Andrew C. McCarthy put on display some of the evidence:
“In the House and the Senate, we own the budget.” It was August 2014, the stretch run before the midterm elections, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell was making promises to voters about how he and his party would face down Barack Obama’s lawless presidency. Put us in charge, he explained, and a Republican Congress would defend Americans by using the main tool the Framers gave them, the power of the purse:
That means we can pass the spending bill. And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board. All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.
But wait, couldn’t that lead to a government shutdown? Weren’t Republicans supposed to be the grown-ups in the room who would “restore regular order” and “make Washington work”? Locked in his own reelection battle, McConnell was having none of it. President Obama “needs to be challenged,” he thundered, “and the best way to do that is through the funding process.” Republicans would place scores of spending restrictions on the president — “that’s something [the president] won’t like,” he told Politico, “but that will be done. I guarantee it.” A GOP-controlled Congress would dare Obama to veto bills in order to preserve spending on his transformational agenda. If a shutdown happened, that would be the White House’s problem.
In other words, McConnell and his fellow Republican leaders talked the brave talk when courting voters who wanted the financing plug pulled on Obama policies that are crushing ordinary Americans — the impeachable non-enforcement of our immigration laws that costs Americans jobs, depresses American wages, and stresses American communities; the unfolding Obamacare debacle that deprives ordinary Americans of the doctors and insurance they had, corralling them into plans with premiums and deductibles so high that the “coverage” is illusory.
Alas, when voters trusted them to follow through, when it came time to walk the walk . . . the GOP went AWOL.
Of course, if McConnell was the only Republican who had advanced such a claim in 2014, one could limit the blame to him. But let’s face it: something of the sort was uttered by virtually every Republican candidate running for the House or the Senate that year. They recognized the wave of resentment in the general public directed at Barack Obama and the Democrats, and they rode that wave with considerable bravado (as they had in 2010). Put bluntly, they promised to make use of the power of the purse, and they did nothing of the sort – not, at least, with regard to the issues about which the voters were worked up.
One could reply by saying that this is all well and good, that McConnell and his colleagues went a bit far, that it is understandable that the voters are miffed, but that the Republicans really could not have accomplished more than they did. One could say, “The American system is slow and balky by design,” as Mona did, and one could blame its “Madisonian architecture.”
There is something to this. Because of that architecture, it is difficult to do much of anything. New initiatives are hard to push through. But it is not so difficult to undo things. One simply has to turn off the spigot by refusing to appropriate money for them, and that is what Mitch McConnell and his colleagues promised and failed to do.
One could respond that they could not risk a government shutdown (though they claimed, while running for office, the opposite). But this response makes no sense. It is the President who shuts down the government by vetoing the budget. “Never mind that,” one could then reply. “They would get the blame. They have gotten the blame every time they tried.”
This, too, is true – but it ignores one thing. Every time they tried they lost their nerve and backed down. Cowards who back down always get the blame. Think about it. Can you think of a single instance in which a man has taken a bold, brave stance and then later backed down in which he did not become an object of contempt?
This matter is more important than it might seem. The truth is that modern liberty depends on the power of the purse. All of the great battles in England in the 17th century between the Crown and Parliament turned ultimately on the power of the purse. The members of Parliament were elected at least in part with an eye to achieving a redress of grievances, and that redress was the price they exacted for funding the Crown. Our legislature has given up that power. Our congressional leaders claim – once the election is over – that they have no leverage. If that is really true, then elections do not matter, and a redress of grievances is now beyond the legislature’s power. Absent that capacity, however, the legislature is virtually useless. Absent that capacity, it is contemptible — and let’s face it: the President and those who work under him have showered it with contempt.
There is a lesson to be learned from the current mess: Congress needs to reassert in a dramatic fashion the power of the purse, and the Republicans need to start keeping their promises. To do that, however, they will have to show a bit of backbone.
I will not defend Donald Trump. I will not assert that those who have backed him in the primaries are conducting themselves in a rational manner. But I will say this: they would not be backing the man if they did not feel betrayed, and they feel betrayed because they have been betrayed.
Look at it this way. In 2010 and 2014, the Republican Party was more successful electorally than at any time since 1928. What have those elected done with the mandate they received? Look above at Mona’s list of their accomplishments. It is, for the most part, a list of things that Barack Obama asked them to do and that they did not do. The real question is this: what concessions did they extract from the President? What did they, using the power of the purse, force him to do on behalf of their constituents? And the answer is: next to nothing. It is no wonder that so many of this year’s primary voters are spitting mad.
If the Republican Party is in the process of committing suicide, it is not due to the party’s constituents. It is due to the leaders who failed them. My guess, for what it is worth, is that in November the Republicans will lose their majority in the Senate and perhaps even the House. That is the sort of thing that happens when one gives short shrift to the concerns of one’s constituents.