The violence that was done to the Constitution and to the “regular order” of the Senate last week as the Senate Republican leadership tried to ram through a bill – any bill – aimed at “reforming” American health care, must not be dismissed as some ugly aberration that could never happen again. Instead, the carnage needs to be understood as a predictable symptom of an illness that has been progressing for decades within the GOP, gradually transforming this once proud party from a national governing institution to one reflecting the insecure and self-protecting conservatism often associated with the South.
I can’t claim credit for that observation. I stole it from long-time congressional scholar Norm Ornstein who told us four years ago that there is not one Republican Party but five – three that mostly try to shape the actions of just one of the three branches of the national government and two other parties that, by and large, reflect the attitudes and mindsets prevalent in either the cosmopolitan North or more ethnically homogeneous South.
And for Ornstein, the House and Southern Republican parties that are now in the driver’s seat “are more concerned with ideological purity and tribal politics than they are with building a durable, competitive national party base to win presidential and Senate majorities.”
Most of these House members are in no danger of losing their seats or their hegemony in their states -- so long as they cater to the base. And so, these members “will be resistant to changes in social policy that reflect broad national opinion; resistant to any policies or rhetoric, including but not limited to immigration, that would appeal to Hispanics, African-Americans, or Asian-Americans; and resistant to policies like Medicaid expansion or Head Start that would ameliorate the plight of the poor.”
They will also be more inclined, says Ornstein, “to use voter-suppression methods to reduce the share of votes cast by those population groups than to find ways to appeal to them.”
A little more than a decade ago, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote a book called Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. In it they sought to delineate the reasons the GOP was ratcheting ever more to the right in defiance of those moderating factors that for generations anchored American politics in what we once confidently called “the vital center.”
The professors cited a number of contributing causes, one of which was right wing control of the party’s purse strings, thus deciding which candidates would get GOP financial support and which ones wouldn’t (Hint: moderate RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only, need not apply). There was also the practice of running hard core conservatives in Republican primaries against liberal or moderate GOP incumbents, even those who had served in Congress for decades and were in powerful committee or leadership positions -- well placed, in other words, to bring home the federal bacon to their constituents. The rise of conservative talk radio and other right-leaning media like Fox News were also factors listed as helping to keep Republican lawmakers in line with conservative dogma.
But most important of all was the organizing and empowering of what used to be called the Radical Right but today might be better identified as Trump’s most loyal and hard core base. It was this group, accounting for perhaps 25 to 30 percent of the electorate, that was able to exert influence on the Republican Party disproportionate to its actual numbers. Once the GOP had been captured and secured, this base could then move on to take control of the country.
It was this group’s invisible handiwork that was evident in the otherwise inexplicable and shameful behavior seen in the Senate last week.
To anyone paying attention to the changing character of the GOP, what should have been utterly unsurprising was the unsettling spectacle of Republican Senate leaders last week throwing together a bill in the dark of night affecting the health and well-being of tens of millions of Americans -- and then recklessly tossing that bill onto the Senate floor without hearings or public notice just two hours before senators were expected to vote on it. That this travesty came within one vote of succeeding – and would have had not three Republican senators stood athwart history and yelled “Stop” when no one else seemed inclined to – is a close call that should worry us all.
I know there are Republicans who will claim that Obamacare, too, was “rammed” through the process. But by “ram” these Republicans do not mean the amount of time devoted to passing the bill (more than a year) or the dozens of public hearings held to debate the bill’s merits. By “ram” what Republicans really mean is that Obamacare passed without a single Republican vote. It does not seem to matter that this result was guaranteed from the start once Mitch McConnell announced his single aim as Republican Senate Leader was to make Obama a one term president by denying him any significant legislative victories – which Obamacare was.
The embarrassing scene we witnessed last week -- as some senators openly admitted they were voting in favor of legislation they privately hoped would never pass -- is the logical consequence of a party totally beholden to its most active and ideological base, one for whom compromise is not an option and responsive, responsible governing takes a back seat to the politics of the permanent campaign where annihilating one’s political “enemies” is the only reason for winning political power.