It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at the headlines to get the impression that the Republican Party is in the middle of a prolonged suicide attempt.
In only the last several weeks, the GOP House Speaker offered to resign in order to avoid an intractable fight over a budget that might have resulted in another unpopular government shutdown. What was supposed to be an orderly succession process was thrown into chaos amid factionalism and disunity within the House Republican Conference. Now, the party’s future seems to rest upon the shoulders of a popular committee chairman and former vice presidential nominee who appears set on resisting calls to rise to the occasion. This confusion perfectly compliments the disorder that has typified the GOP’s presidential nominating process. A sizable portion of the Republican base of primary voters is registering its dissatisfaction with the party by backing one of the three candidates in the race who have no experience in political office. The contest’s front-runner is such a toxic and unacceptable alternative to Democrats that analysts have speculated the GOP primary voter would prefer to see the party torn down and rebuilt from scratch than to license the continuation of business as usual, even if that means sacrificing a winnable presidential election.
None of this suggests that the GOP is a party characterized by discipline, nor is it especially remarkable. The Republican Party is, in a sense, a victim of its own success.
The GOP is today plagued by disorder associated with a broad and widely divergent coalition of members. This condition isn’t as lamentable when it is framed as a reflection of the robust size of the GOP collation represented in Congress. Having won its largest majorities since Harry Truman occupied the White House in the 2014 midterm elections, the Republican Party is struggling to reconcile its successes at the ballot box. A broad majority coalition is an ideologically diverse coalition, and one that inevitably grows unwieldy.
Those who would like to contend that Democrats do not experience similar problems maintaining discipline in their ranks have forgotten the bitter, 13-month-long process required to craft the Affordable Care Act, as well as myriad carve outs (see Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu) and wheedling (see Bart Stupak) it took in order to secure the minimum support it needed for passage. The distinction between how Democrats and Republicans governed in the majority was not the unruliness of their members, but the ruthlessness and penchant for manipulation of those who enforced discipline in leadership. That alone might be the best argument in favor of new management in the House GOP conference.
As for the state of presidential politics, the notion that the messy Republican process is reflective of a sickness within the party masks the relative decrepitude of their Democratic counterparts.
Contrary to the presumption among grassroots conservative activists that the Republican Party is busily at work thwarting their aspirations, much of the GOP’s present disarray can be fairly attributed to the party’s desire to accommodate its restive base. The party could have taken any number of avenues that would have, for example, made it impossible for Donald Trump to ascend to the debate stage or to meet the requirements to secure ballot access at the state-level. Indeed, party officials flirted with those prospects, but cooler heads prevailed. The same cannot be said of the Democratic Party’s officials, who have been nakedly at work protecting Hillary Clinton from the scrutiny of her fellow party members.
The most vivid example of this phenomenon has been the party’s process of scheduling debates. The Democrats have done their best to hide these contests from the public. There will be only six Democratic debates, and just four of them will be held before the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. On Tuesday the only Democratic debate scheduled for prime time on a weekday will be held in Las Vegas. The remaining three debates will take place on either Saturday or Sunday when they will compete for attention with college and professional football.
“Campaigns started griping about the plan soon after the party committee announced it three months ago — the [Bernie] Sanders and [Martin] O’Malley camps publicly said they wanted more than six debates, while Clinton’s team initially lobbied for even fewer,” Politico reported earlier this year. But while the Democratic National Committee failed to acquiesce to Clinton’s hectoring for even fewer contests, the party has also been uniquely protective of her. Even the DNC’s own vice chairwoman, Hawaii Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard, was reportedly disinvited from Tuesday’s debate because she had the temerity to criticize the coronation process.
“It’s very dangerous when we have people in positions of leadership who use their power to try to quiet those who disagree with them,” the Iraq War veteran and popular Democratic congresswoman said of her own party’s leadership. “When I signed up to be the vice chair of the DNC, no one told me I would be relinquishing my freedom of speech and checking it at the door.”
The notion that the Democratic Party’s central committee is virtually at war with itself over the effort to shield Barack Obama’s chosen successor from inspection has not yielded anywhere near the coverage it deserves. Perhaps that is a function of the fact that so few believe these machinations alter the trajectory of the race. The self-described “democratic socialist” giving Clinton a run for her money has taken advantage of the controversy and invited Gabbard to join him at the debate as his guest, but this is a mere gesture. If the GOP debates were Golden Gloves boxing, their Democratic equivalents are expected to more closely resemble tai chi.
“[U]nlike at the Republican presidential debates so far, there’s little indication that the moderator is going to encourage a brawl,” the New York Times reported on Monday. “Anderson Cooper, of CNN, who will moderate the debate, said on Sunday that he was mindful that the candidates did not want a boxing match.”
The “candidates?” Who, exactly, are these “candidates,” plural, who do not want to square off against their party’s prohibitive frontrunner? More to the point, who cares what the “candidates,” plural, want? Debates aren’t an exercise designed to satisfy the needs of their participants. They are, or at least were, designed to clarify matters for voters and to illuminate the candidates’ positions on the issues. Hillary Clinton’s chief liability in a general election, her untrustworthiness as evidenced by the all-consuming email scandal, was already unlikely to be thoroughly litigated by liberals who are sensitive to the charge that they are advancing a conservative narrative by doing so. It seems now that even the issues dear to liberal hearts will get the softly-softly touch, too.
When assessing the relative health of the two political parties, a measured perspective must concede that Democrats are by no means in peak shape. A party that is actively suppressing dissent, even among its own elected members, is not a healthy party. The only reason why the Democrats would be able to get away with this manner of totalitarianism is that the party’s ideological diversity has been wiped out by two successive wave midterm elections that severely truncated the Democratic Party’s membership in Congress.
If the GOP is in a bad way, that can be blamed on the party’s inability to manage its successes. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, can only assign the blame for its struggles to its failures.