The internecine Republican feuding has lately become more complicated. It’s still the same old story of the establishment versus the insurgents, the squishy moderates versus the principled conservatives, and the real Republicans versus the Republicans In Name Only, but the days it’s hard to tell who’s on which side. At this point in the plot President Donald Trump is “tweeting” threats against the House of Representative’s “Freedom Caucus,” so all the old labels of establishment and insurgent and principled and squishy no longer make any sense, and who the real Republicans are is very much up for debate.
As a relatively recent Republican Trump won the party’s nomination with a plurality of primary and caucus votes by running as an outsider and populist renegade hellbent on burning down the hated GOP establishment, as exemplified by party chairman Reince Priebus and House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, but following his improbable win of the electoral vote he seem surprised to find that he suddenly was the establishment. After running on grandiose promises of repealing Obamacare within days of taking office and replacing it with coverage for everyone at and lower costs and so beautiful it would make your head spin, Trump made Priebus his White House Chief of Staff and turned to Ryan McConnell to make good on his word, then went off to golf at his fabulous Mar-a-Lago resort, as populists do.
That was fine with the plurality of the party that now defines Republicanism as obeisance to Trump, and when it all went down in flames many of them were eager to blame Priebus and Ryan and McConnell and the rest of the hated establishment who had hoodwinked the naive Trump, even if he had also been elected because of his boasts of being both anti-establishment and the savviest deal-maker ever, and there was plenty of blame to be spread around the whole party. Some of those squishy moderates who somehow survived the past six years of insurgent anti-establishment primary purges bucked the party line on the bill because they were cowed by its 17 percent approval rating and all the looming sob stories from the 24 million people expected to lose health care coverage the first three years of premium hikes that were also forecast. More votes were lost from the “Freedom Caucus,” the same insurgent populists who had gained office by running on the original “Tea Party” wave of dissatisfaction with the Republican establishment, as they objected to the bill because it didn’t fully repeal Obamacare and replaced it with something that retained too many of the taxes and regulations and outrageous infringements of free market principles and individual liberty that the entirety of the party had claimed to be against from the get-go.
Trump took to “Twitter” to blame the “Freedom Caucus” members and threaten them with primary challenges by more obeisant Republicans if they didn’t come around. “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast,” Trump “tweeted,” adding with similar eloquence that “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” Later “tweets” mentioned individual members by name, with similar political intimidation repeated, which leaves us wondering what the Republican establishment but not doubting that it’s likely to be burned down.
The “tweets” don’t seem likely to settle the matter, though, as the “Freedom Caucus” members defiantly “tweeted” back in Trump’s own blustery style. Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie responded with a snarky “#Swampcare polls 17%. Sad!” Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett of Virginia “tweeted” a simple “Stockholm Syndrome?” to suggest that Trump was now stuck with the hated establishment label. None appeared to be at all intimidated, and we can’t see why they should be. It’s easy to resist a populist movement that’s polling 17 percent in the polls, which is truly is sad, Trump’s numbers are hovering around 40 at a time when a president should be getting a honeymoon bump, and most of those “Freedom Caucus” members won their districts by bigger margins than Trump. Some of them really believe what they ran on, too, and can more persuasively argue why they voted against the bill Trump backed than Trump can argue for it.
To the extent that they can’t “tweet” the argument, conservative media ranging from the rabble-rousing radio talkers to the old eggheaded and think-tanky ink-and-paper publications will make it for them. Given that Trump’s remaining support won’t listen to any media that isn’t explicitly conservative, that’s a problem. Some of the conservative media are by now obeisant to Trump, but given their past full-throated supported for the “Freedom Caucus” and its anti-establishment stand they’re going to have some tricky talking to do. There are still enough Democrats hanging around Congress that Trump will need pretty much Republican vote to “get on the team, & fast,” which will be hard to do with a party that prides itself on its rugged individualism and stubborn independence and despite a certain reverence for order and tradition has lately come to regard any sort of establishment as needing to be burned down.
All of which leaves the Republicans with a whole lot of soul-searching about what their party really stands for. Given the current state of the Democratic Party, the country desperately needs the Republicans to get on with it.
— Bud Norman