Michael Barone / Nov. 17, 2017

Will Political Setbacks Unite the Republican Party?

The inexorable workings of the political marketplace seem to be enforcing some discipline over hitherto fissiparous Republican politicians. The question is whether this is happening too late to save the party’s declining prospects in the 2018 midterm elections.

The inexorable workings of the political marketplace seem to be enforcing some discipline over hitherto fissiparous Republican politicians. The question is whether this is happening too late to save the party’s declining prospects in the 2018 midterm elections.

You can see this in Republicans’ reactions to the tax bills Congress is currently considering. Last spring, when the party’s congressional leadership teed up its health care bills, purportedly repealing and replacing Obamacare, they faced rebellions from practically every corner of their party’s caucuses.

In the House, the Freedom Caucus trotted out one criticism after another. This is in line with standard practice, going back at least to October 2013, when Freedom Caucus types, heeding newly elected Senator Ted Cruz’s calls to defund Obamacare, produced a government shutdown that sent the party, predictably, plummeting in the polls.

House Republican rebels made purist arguments, cited pledges never to vote for government expansion, called for constitutional conservatism. They chided Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell for insufficient boldness, seemingly forgetting that the Constitution gave President Barack Obama a veto.

Now things look different. With Republicans holding the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress, the purism that resulted in defeat of the House’s first attempt at Obamacare revision, followed by the defeat of a second in the Senate, leaves Republicans double-digits behind Democrats on the generic which-party-would-you-back question.

Democrats’ big victories in the Virginia and New Jersey governor races also struck a chord. These states, dominated by high-education suburbs in major metro areas, tilt more Democratic than the nation. But Republicans have been losing legislative special elections even in red-state Trump districts.

So just about all the erstwhile rebels are suddenly supporting Speaker Paul Ryan’s tax bill, even though it’s easy to find complex provisions to which purists could object. They’ve discovered that in the American political marketplace, whose rules usually limit competition to two parties, a majority party that can’t perform is liable to severe punishment.

But for some — notably former White House advisor Steve Bannon — the point is not to win, but to oust the current Republican leadership. Just as California billionaire Tom Steyer conditions contributions on pledges to vote for impeachment, so former Goldman Sachs exec Bannon requires pledges to vote for ouster of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

That left him endorsing, apparently with no visible effect, Roy Moore in the special election Republican runoff for the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Moore, a dim bulb, was twice ousted from the state Supreme Court for disobeying a federal court order (banning his Ten Commandments courthouse statue) and the Supreme Court decision proclaiming a right to same-sex marriage.

His stands proved popular with many evangelical voters. But his argument, that the order and decision were wrong, shows either ignorance of the supremacy clause in Article VI of the United States Constitution or a commitment to lawlessness that is the opposite of conservatism.

But all that has been pushed to the side after last week’s Washington Post story that as a 30-something lawyer, Moore had at least one sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl and pursued four other teens; this week came charges of sexual harassment by another. Moore’s quasi-denials, even to the sympathetic Sean Hannity, have been unconvincing. Polls have shown him losing ground and even trailing against a respectable Democratic candidate in a state that Donald Trump carried 62 to 34 percent.

Republican senators, including McConnell and Alabama’s Richard Shelby, have responded by saying he should withdraw from the race. His name can’t legally be removed from the Dec. 12 ballot, but there is speculation about a write-in campaign for Luther Strange, the appointee he beat in the runoff, or even Sessions.

Corey Gardner, head of the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee, has gone father. “If he refuses to withdraw and wins, the Senate should vote to expel him.” Under the Supreme Court Powell v. McCormack decision, the Senate must seat him, but could expel him by a two-thirds vote.

Contrary to claims that there is no precedent for this or that a senator can’t be expelled based on conduct prior to election, a move by senators to expel Michigan Senator Truman Newberry was frustrated only when Newberry resigned in 1922.

No possible outcome looks helpful for beleaguered Republicans now. Unless, perhaps, Republican politicians — and voters — heed the signals in the political marketplace and reject Steve Bannon’s burn-the-barn-down strategy.

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