Reince Priebus, the recently canned whipping boy of the Trump administration, says things these days look pretty rosy for the Republican Party. “Winning is what we were supposed to do, and we won. That’s the job of the Republican Party. It’s in the best shape it’s been in since 1928.”
And, in sense, Priebus is absolutely right. In my professional parish, a political party is defined as an organization dedicated to running candidates for office under its own label. If a party’s primary purpose is to contest elections, then it follows that the obvious yardstick of its success is how many elections it wins. As the Republicans won pretty much everything last go around, Priebus’ claim that things are just tickety boo for the GOP has a reasonable portion of quantitative veracity. In other words, contrary to opinions from other quarters, Priebus is not completely full of crap.
Here’s the thing, though. If a party wins enough of those elections to gain control of the government it is expected to, well, govern. Professional observers of government such as myself are realistic enough to recognize and accept that the primary driver of any political party is the pursuit of power. Once a party gains power, however, voters expect them to do something with it. You know, like all the stuff they promised to do if they ever got into the driver’s seat.
And, at least thus far, Republicans under Donald Trump are proving themselves spectacularly incapable of governing. Don’t take my word for it. Lots of conservative Republicans are saying exactly the same thing (you can read what a bunch of them say on this matter here). Republican Senator Jeff Flake makes the argument in painful detail. Neo-con Bill Kristol says more or less the same thing. Some of the lads over at the National Review are not only saying the GOP can’t get things done, they are skating mightily close to openly calling Trump nuts and the Republicans nuttier for making him the face of the party’s governing brand. The collective point of all this concerned conservative navel gazing seems to be a growing sense of buyer’s remorse. The gist is basically that putting the pursuit of power above everything else—principles, policy, pride, values, facts, social cohesion, adult supervision—was a Faustian bargain that turned out to be a very bad deal. Indeed, those are pretty much the exact words Flake uses. If this is what prominent conservatives are saying, you can imagine the high-pitched wails of Republican incompetence being raised on the left.
Priebus, though, isn’t having any regrets or second guessing. As head of the Republican National Committee he became the face of the party’s embrace of Trump and his promised brand of governance, and backed that up by becoming, however briefly, White House chief of staff. For his trouble he was relived of his dignity and of any illusion that Trump would magically mature into a more conventional statesman once in office. It was still all worth it, Priebus argues, because of what the Trump administration has accomplished. What are those accomplishments? According to Priebus, “a conservative Supreme Court justice, regulatory reform, and a healthy economy.”
Uh-huh. As far as anyone can tell the healthy economy is just a continuation of its pre-Trump trajectory. For certain, in the past six months the federal government has passed no policy or program that could conceivably have had any meaningful impact on GDP, unemployment or similar indexes of economic health. The regulatory reform basically amounts to a bunch of executive orders, which the president is extremely fond of signing … and which the next Democratic president will almost certainly cancel with an equal and opposite executive order. Fair enough, though, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch was, no question, a big conservative win.
Balanced against all this winning, though, is quite a bit of losing. Most prominently is the gobsmacking self-immolation of the GOP’s healthcare plans, the inability of the majority party to deliver on the most prominent and central legislative goal it has sought and promised for nearly a decade. Trump also seems to be losing Congress more generally. Congress passed sanctions against Russia against the president’s wishes and groups of legislators are tentatively starting to hash out bipartisan health care options without his support or blessing. Indeed, members of his own party increasingly are giving signs they are simply willing to ignore what the president wants, and given that his poll numbers have fallen lower than coalmine canaries, you can hardly blame them. Even the Gorsuch victory might exact a steep, albeit long-term, price. Getting that win required torpedoing Merrick Garland’s nomination on pretty shaky constitutional grounds, torching a set of senatorial norms, and putting up with the unsettling sound of seriously steamed Democrats constantly sharpening knives behind closed doors. When that go around comes around, and this being politics it surely will, Dems will have no compunction about wielding their obsessively stropped blades to slice off a vengeful pound or two of GOP flesh.
The growing internecine GOP catfights over the party’s plans, not to mention the increasing questions from within its own ranks of its capability to carry them out, are not good news for those of us who want government to work regardless of who is in charge of it. The chances seem slim that the Republican Party is going to improve on its lamentable six-month record as a mostly incompetent governing force. Priebus’ assessment of necessary sacrifices yielding a string of sterling successes is less a case of looking at the world with rose colored glasses than suffering the political equivalent of hysterical blindness. And maybe that’s not surprising. Over the past year he has repeatedly shown himself to be a pollyannaish Trump/party hybrid, a Toyota Priebus that turned out to get lousy mileage. He lasted only six months in service to House Trump, and spent most of that playing Theon Greyjoy to the president’s Ramsey Bolton in the White House’s revolving Game of Drones.
Still, Priebus’ historical analogy for the GOP may touch closer to reality than he realizes. The Republican Party was sitting pretty in 1928. It controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, and was confident that its pro-business agenda would deliver the goods for the citizenry and keep it in power. Things didn’t quite work out that way. A year later the economy tanked, and the Republican president (Herbert Hoover) and the GOP congressional majorities came to be viewed by the populace as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. In 1932 FDR got elected and, with a couple of odd exceptions here and there, the Democratic Party basically enjoyed sixty years of electoral dominance.
If it’s really 1928 all over again, maybe the Republican Party should stop all the Priebus-like counting of its wins and get its act together. If it doesn’t, it’s going to get tired of all that winning much sooner than later.