Assuming Donald Trump loses the election in November, we still don’t know how much power Republicans in Washington will be left with next year. There are conceivable scenarios in which they keep complete control of Congress, are wiped out altogether, or relinquish the Senate but maintain a brittle grip on the House of Representatives.
Though the ultimate distribution is unclear, we are discovering with some certainty how Republicans will use whatever power they have, and the emerging picture is bleak and infuriating.
The agenda that Republicans ran on, before the bottom fell out of the Trump campaign, was scattershot and inconsistent. Trump’s plans to ban Muslim travel and mass-deport immigrants have been contradicted by the Republican House speaker, the Republican vice presidential nominee, and even Trump himself at times. Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to radically reorder and devolve the federal safety net likewise contains a number of elements that Trump at times seems to oppose.
Now that Trump appears destined to lose, Republicans are falling back on a general argument that anti-Trump Republicans and independents should vote for GOP office-seekers further down the ticket, to restrain Hillary Clinton when she’s president.
But a more accurate way to describe what they’re seeking is to hold together their broken party for long enough to make another run at complete control of government in 2020. Republicans are no longer seeking any substantive ends in the interim—just the power to obstruct and the power to manufacture scandal. And they will be aided in this effort by many of the same conservative intellectuals who have spent more than a year lamenting the rise of Donald Trump.
The constructive ideal of a legislative check on the executive branch comes by way of comparison to a hypothetical, unchecked majority. If Democrats win control of government, they’ll do X; if we Republicans keep the House, we’ll scale that back to some more constrained Y.
This bears no resemblance to what Republicans have in mind as they ask voters to give them a check on Democratic rule.
To draw a clear distinction between substantive ends, like enacting policies, and political ones, like obstruction and scandal manufacturing, look first to the Republican Party’s reaction to the news that Affordable Care Act premiums will be on average 22 percent higher this coming enrollment period than they were a year ago.
After seeking to repeal the law unsuccessfully for six years, the Republican response to this latest development has been to attack Democrats (as should be expected) and demand anew that the law be eliminated, without proposing any specific plans to restrain premium growth, or shield consumers from higher costs.
Should Republicans manage to hold on to the Senate, they will continue their six-year boycott of meaningful health legislation, to entrench as many of the Affordable Care Act’s problems as possible, while advancing more and more symbolic legislation to hobble or abolish it.
“Sometimes,” conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru explained, “you decide that you want a different kind of home altogether, and work until you can move there.”
But the GOP’s submerged pitch to voters goes far beyond the desire to continue its Obamacare boycott. They are promising endless investigations into imaginary scandals, and—should they hold the Senate—to reject Clinton’s nominations to the federal bench, sight unseen.
Senator John McCain offered us a glimpse of the legitimation crisis Republicans will provoke if they manage to keep the Senate when he promised last week that Republicans “will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up.”
His spokesman tried to sidestep the ensuing controversy with a statement suggesting McCain’s promised obstruction only applies to liberal nominees (i.e. the kind Clinton is going to nominate), but there is a strong appetite on the right to create a new norm under which presidents can only get Supreme Court justices confirmed if their party happens to control the Senate.
“[I]t would be completely decent, honorable, and in keeping with the Senate’s constitutional duty,” wrote Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute, “to vote against essentially every judicial nominee she names.”
Even absent control of the Senate, Republicans are asking voters not for any particular check on Clinton, but to be able to weigh down her administration by heavy-handedly recapitulating the same controversies they’ve been investigating since Clinton left the State Department. The House’s lead investigator, Jason Chaffetz of Utah, is promising “years” of investigations, not of Clinton’s administration, which hasn’t even been constituted, but into well-trodden pseudo-scandals and fabricated allegations of wrongdoing.
In divided government, the congressional party always investigates the president, often overzealously, but the underlying motives for these investigations usually have some connection to important events. Or at least they’re supposed to. It needs to be said that what Republicans are hoping to do is contrive investigations as a kind of glue to hold their shattered party together.
Don’t take my word for it—that is how influential conservatives describe what’s happening.
In a searching op-ed this week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat examines what the right’s intellectuals did wrong—what role they played in making the GOP susceptible to Trump’s takeover. Among other things, he admits that “the right’s best minds deceived themselves about (or made excuses for) the toxic tendencies of populism, which were manifest in various hysterias long before Sean Hannity swooned for Donald Trump.”
I’d take this two steps further. First, many conservative intellectuals were enthusiastic peddlers of these same hysterias. Second, as the above examples demonstrate, there’s no reason to describe these phenomena in the past tense.