Can Anyone Govern?

The Republican Party has spent much of the last two months demonstrating its Second Amendment cred by using its own feet for target practice. President Trump piddled away political capital on misdemeanor mendacities and twitter fritter. The fireworks planned for Obamacare repeal damp squibbed into embarrassing flunk and failure. Mounting evidence of Russian electoral meddling has done little to stem the GOP smoochie-grams to Putin. No wonder the polls are down and the electorate’s blood is up.

Given the mortifying early returns on GOP jefe-dom it’s not surprising that an increasing number of people are asking: Can the Republicans govern? And to be clear, this isn’t just me, or the Democrats, or the media, or that guy whispering secret sweet-nothings into Devin Nunes’ ear after midnight in the White House shadows. Nope, Republicans themselves are raising the issue. As Florida Congressman Tom Rooney put it this week, “I’ve been in this job eight years, and I’m wracking my brain to think of one thing our party has done that’s positive.” Yowza. If the cast admits they’re not ready for prime time, just imagine what the critics make of the show.

Given that their playbook so far seems to consist of the four Fs–flub, fluff, fib and fumble—questioning the GOP’s governing capabilities is reasonable enough. Reasonable, yes, but it also distracts from a deeper and more fundamental question: can anyone can govern the republic, given the hot mess in Washington, DC?

I fear there’s a reasonable chance that the answer is a negative. This is due in no small part to the current mismatch between the political system’s ground rules and the ground realities of how contemporary politics is conducted.  A lot of people in American politics, like certain presidents and Freedom Caucuses I could mention, act like they’re in a Westminster system. In other words in a classic parliamentary set up similar to the UK. That is government based on the philosophy that if anything is going to get done you have to give the windbags in the majority the unquestioned juice to do it. So you might have a legislative chamber with plenty of hurly and bags of burly, but it’s a domicile of democracy very different from the US House and Senate. Power is strongly concentrated, the executive leads the legislature, members of the majority party tend to be unified, and backbenchers toe the party line.

That’s a very different way of doing things compared to the system of divided government we have in the United States. The operating philosophy here is that no agglomeration of ballot box carpetbaggers should get their hands on enough power to do any serious damage, at least not without a lot of help. Rather than stuffing power into one big confection and letting the majority party gorge on it, the US system parcels out power in calorie-controlled portions. The US system scatters power across its elected institutions like sprinkles on a cupcake.

So getting anything done typically requires more than just a majority, but a peck of wheeling and a parcel of dealing. Old school legislators—the Tip O’Neills, the Bob Michels—made their political careers on helping to stitch together differing interests within an institutional context they thoroughly understood. This often meant not just managing a fractious party caucus, but a sensitivity to inter-chamber dynamics, and a working relationship with whatever ingrate was in the White House. More often than not this meant you had to work with the opposite party in some fashion to get anything worthwhile done. These guys understood that the system worked best, and maybe only worked at all, with some level of good-faith compromise. Don’t get too misty-eyed about bygone eras of party comity, there were still a lot of sharp partisan elbows being thrown about. The difference was that the grown-ups running the joint knew if they couldn’t scrape together enough of those sprinkles, the system simply wouldn’t chew the legislative pastry.

Current GOP poo-bahs don’t seem to get this. They seem to think, or at least did before their healthcare plans went pear shaped, that their majority gave them the power to unilaterally call the tune, Westminster-style.  That seems a dangerous assumption given that roughly half the Republican Party suspects the other half of collusion and apostasy, and what’s left over is being driven to Xanax and Zoloft by cack-handed muddle bums machine-gunning tootsies down at the White House. Seriously, the booed dude at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue seems to have only a dim idea of how the system works at all. Who knew about all those incredibly arcane legislative rules the president complained of? Well, if Team Trump ever wants to get anything done, somebody should find out (we have seats available in POL SCI 101, just sayin’). On the other end of the executive-legislative axis, the few dozen uber-conservatives in the Freedom Caucus seem to view any type of compromise as anathema, so within the context of the United States political system they are simply not serious about governing.  What they are deadly serious about, and extremely good at, is preventing anyone else from governing. Paul Ryan can’t fix this as Speaker of the House. He is not a mini-prime minister. He’s more like a hall monitor.

It might be easier to ignore all the bats flitting about the Republican belfry and actually get something done if GOP moderates could find a way to work across the aisle. Fat chance of that. For one thing, these days GOP moderates are rarer than truth in a Trump tweet. And even if they were available in plentiful numbers, willing Democratic partners are probably not. The Democrats were clearly paying close attention as Mitch McConnell, the Republican Party’s Senate equivalent of Emperor Palpatine, spent the Obama years turning the Republican Party into the Greatest No on Earth. The eight-year partisan blockade obviously paid big political dividends—bagged the Republicans a unified majority, successful shoplifting of a Supreme Court seat, and look at all the sprinkles we got! Thus shown the power of the dark side of the Force, the newly constituted Darth Dems seem committed to exploiting it for themselves. Which is why I wouldn’t expect the federal government to get much done at all, at least in the short term. The Republicans strategy of not playing ball until they controlled the whole game paid off. But now they are finding they can’t make the big score because the rules make it really, really hard to do that if no one else wants to play with you. And right now, no one does. Not even a lot of Republicans.