If the “blue wave” that Democrats see building ahead of November does not arrive with the ferocity they envision, the political left can still take solace in some of the victories they’ve already won. In that event, the Republican Party would have narrowly escaped losing a national referendum, but that doesn’t mean that Republicans have escaped defeat. Even today, the GOP is a broken husk of its former self.
Over the weekend, progressives and liberal populists gathered at the annual Netroots Nation conference to revel in their ascendancy, but their confidence is not unjustified. One after the other, Democratic presidential hopefuls flattered the crowd of activists and, more important, professed their shared policy preferences. A single-payer health care system estimated to cost $32 trillion over a decade, expanded social security, tuition-free college, the forgiveness of student-loan debt, a $15-per-hour national minimum wage, a federal employment guarantee, a dramatic paring back of the nation’s immigration-enforcement agencies; these and more formerly radical ideas are gaining real purchase. Even the centrist Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan swore requisite fealty to the progressive agenda.
Anyone with a sense of modesty and frugality will find this reckless profligacy appalling. Even the immodest possessed of a passing familiarity with unintended consequences must concede, for example, that a massive minimum-wage hike amid a wave of automatization might not be so compassionate after all. But the point of these ideas is not that they are especially feasible—they’re not. The point is just that they deserve to be called ideas. Democrats who dismiss the innumeracy and toxic racial obsession exhibited by their party’s left flank as passionate fringe elements are making a big mistake. The fringe is where the energy is. It’s where the canvassers and the small-dollar donors are. And it’s where the coalition’s ideas are conceived. As such, the fringe doesn’t stay fringe for long.
Republicans know that all too well. At the dawn of this political moment—one that would culminate in the kind of Republican domination of state and federal government unseen in nearly a century—the GOP, too, had its wacky fringe. But the margins weren’t merely sources of embarrassment. They were fonts of enthusiasm and intellectual vitality. The libertarian-tinged conservatives who spent the Obama years organizing, strategizing, and pitching sweeping legislative reforms at CPAC may not have overtaken the GOP, but no one could convincingly argue that they did not have a serious influence on the Republican Party.
Today, that vibrancy is gone. The conservative movement in and out of Congress is not dedicated to the advancement of its ideas but to preventing the other guy’s ideas from coming to fruition.
From the confirmation of judges, whose chief qualification is their opposition to bizarre new readings of the Constitution that justify sweeping liberal policy objectives, to the non-enforcement of onerous regulations by the executive, the stuff that energizes the Republican Party’s activists and intellectuals is utterly unambitious. Gone are the days when conservatives promised to overhaul the nation’s health-care system, devolve federal powers back to the states, scale back the IRS, and render the nation’s ballooning entitlement programs sustainable. Gone is the CPAC that served as an arena of competing ideas. The desire to out-compete the left has been replaced by the fleeting satisfaction of triggering liberals’ gag reflexes on Twitter.
According to Cory Bliss, chief strategist for a PAC dedicated to preserving the GOP’s House majority, the messages that really jazz Republican voters are entirely negative. “If the choice is, ‘Do you want to raise middle-class taxes? Do you want to abolish ICE? Do you want Nancy Pelosi as speaker?’ That’s a debate we’ll win,” he told the New York Times recently. A Republican voter in Ohio’s 12th congressional district summed up the GOP agenda more succinctly: “We’ve got to protect President Trump.” But for what? Republicans asked the public for prohibitive political power and got it, but now that power is dedicated solely to its own preservation.
There’s a lot to be said for running block. William F. Buckley distilled the conservative ethos in National Review’s mission statement as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop,” and the bulwarks that Republicans have erected in the effort to impede the advance of cultural and economic liberalism are impressive. But there is a concession in all this negative partisanship, and it’s a sad one from the conservative perspective. It is that the legislative phase of this period of unique Republican dominance is over. The ball is not going to advance. The GOP is already on defense.
This strange bunker mentality is entirely unjustified. The appeal of a persecution complex notwithstanding, Republicans are still the masters of their destiny. There are no observable conditions that have forced them into a position of servility. With 92 days to go before the midterms, this docility on the part of the party in power is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable.
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