These should be the best of times for the Republican party, what with complete control of the federal government and most of the states, but Tuesday seemed more like the worst of times. The party’s latest effort to repeal and replace Obama proved as futile as the previous ones, the Senate candidate backed by both the party establishment and the anti-established President Donald Trump lost to a full-throated theocrat in an special Alabama primary, and another shoo-in incumbent moderate decided not to make another run for Congress, along with all the other assorted bad news.
No one was surprised by the party’s latest failure in its seven year crusade to repeal and replace Obamacare, which went down without a vote for the same reasons it did on the previous tries. The GOP’s majority is in the Senate is too slim to lose even three votes, there are moderates who don’t like any of the offered health care bills because they’re too austere, conservatives who don’t like any of them because they’re too profligate, and every attempt to modify the bills to appease one faction inevitably offended the other. Each of the bills had something for everyone to dislike, all the opinion polls they were even more unpopular than the hated Obamacare law, and no one in the party could muster much of a sales pitch.
That conspicuous lack of a sales pitch was partly because the Republicans were in too much of a hurry to make one, for no good reason we can discern, but it’s also due to a lack of salesmanship in the party. The Republicans did spend seven years making a strong case against Obamacare, to the point that all the opinion polls showed it was widely hated, and steep insurance premium rate hikes in most markets made it all the easier, but they had less luck pitching the alternatives. They couldn’t talk the public out of liking the provision that insured coverage people with pre-existing conditions or the subsidies that allowed many millions of Americans to get some sort of policy, and since those were the market-distorting features that resulted in those sky high premium rate hikes that made Obamacare so unpopular it was hard to come up with an alternative, much less sell it to a wary electorate.
Neither the moderates nor the conservatives in the party were up to the task, and despite his reputation for salesmanship Trump couldn’t offer any help. During his presidential campaign Trump had promised coverage for every American at greatly reduced price and care that would be so great your head would spin, but he clearly didn’t have a plan that would have accomplished that, and of course no Democrat or Republican or independent knew how to do it, so he was never an enthusiastic supporter of what was on offer. He threw a beer party for the Republicans in the House of Representatives after they passed a repeal and replace bill on a second try, but the later “tweeted” that the bill was “mean,” and except for one little-seen speech on a weekday afternoon his efforts were mostly limited to trying to bully reluctant Republicans into voting for anything he might get on his to sign.
Trump’s salesmanship also fell short in Alabama, where a clear majority of Republican voters chose the state’s former Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore over Trump-backed incumbent Luther Strange in a race that reveals all sorts of internecine Republican squabbles. Strange was the incumbent because he’d been appointed to the seat after longtime Sen. Jeff Sessions was appointed to be Trump’s Attorney General, which has turned to be a complicated matter, and had been a loyal ally to Republican majority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose political action committee donated generously to Strange’s campaign, yet despite these impeccable establishment credentials he was also endorsed during an open primary round of voting by the same Trump who was blaming McConnell and the establishment for all the party’s recent failures. The open primary featured a fellow named Mo Brooks who was so severely conservative that all the talk show hosts and numerous other Trump apologists were touting him, all of whom come right out and griped about Trump’s endorsement, and when Strange and Moore wound up in the run-off they all sided with Moore. The final days of the campaign saw former Trump “chief strategist” Steve Bannon and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, both of whom had proved their populist credentials back when Trump was contributing to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign, giving fulsome speeches on behalf of Moore.
Trump’s efforts on behalf of Strange, meanwhile, were less enthusiastic. He tried to convince Alabamans that Strange hardly knew McConnell and was a true fellow disestablishmentarian, but no one was buying that. By now too many rank-and-file Republicans in Alabama and elsewhere loathe McConnell and the Republican establishment even more than they love Trump, and Trump seems to sense this with his usual keen political instincts. He showed up for a 57 minute speech at a raucous campaign rally for Strange last week, but he spent most of it bragging about his popularity and blasting Republican Sen. John McCain and starting a feud with the National Football League that took up most of the news cycle, and in one of the few mentions of Strange he admitted that “I might have made a mistake in endorsing the guy.” He also promised to campaign for Moore if that’s how the election turned out, and although we’re sure he’ll keep that promise it remains to be seen how it will work out for the Republicans.
Moore is the favorite in his special general election against Democratic candidate and former U.S. attorney Doug Jones, if not as heavy a favorite as Strange would have been, but we doubt he’ll play as well as a Republican standard-bear in the other 49 states. In the recent Republican past we have proudly supported the party’s stand that the Judeo-Christian traditions which have done so much to create our enviable western civilization should continue to inform our decisions into the future, and steadfastly insisted that such time-tested principles enhance rather than threaten our freedom and democracy, but we have to admit Moore really is the theocratic Republican that Democrats have always caricatured. He was twice removed from Supreme Court seat, once for defying a federal order to remove a Ten Commandments sculpture from public grounds and the second time for ordering lower Alabama courts to ignore a Supreme Court decision to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples, and in both cases he made clear that God’s law should supersede civil law, which is pretty much the dictionary definition of theocracy.
We’re the church-going sorts of Republican Kansans who think it ridiculous that anyone would object to the Ten Commandments taking up some small space in the public square, and we had our old-fashioned constitutional originalist reasons for disagreeing with that Supreme Court decision that found a previously hidden right to a same-sex marriage license, and we still don’t think the government should compel anyone to baking a wedding cake, yet we’re not entirely comfortable with Moore. If fate should ever compel us to choose between following either God’s law or man’s law we hope we’ll opt for the former, and we give thanks that hasn’t to us happened yet, but there’s God’s law according to Moore and God’s law according to us and God’s law according to the rest of you, and we’re left here on Earth to sort it out. Our version of God’s law includes verses about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and obeying civil authority, and a Savior who came not to establish His heaven and not on earth, and as crazy as that sounds we invite everyone to share our faith but won’t try to compel anyone to do so.
Maybe Trump will muster more enthusiasm for it. He’s a thrice-married and six-times-bankrupt casino-and strip club mogul who has bragged about all the married babes he’s bagged and said at a religious gathering he’s never felt the need to ask God’s forgiveness for anything, and talked fulsomely about the lesbian and gay and bisexual and transexual communities at the Republican convention, of all places, but he’s somehow big with a lot of the Christians in Alabama and elsewhere and has a keen political instinct. How that will play with the rest of America, of course, also remains to be seen.
Tuesday also brought the news that Tennessee’s Sen. Bob Corker was bowing out of the Senate. He’d had a long and admirably unnoticed career holding off the crazier Democratic ideas and letting down the party on its crazier ideas, and was regarded as one of the party’s wise old hands on foreign policy matters, so naturally he was a frequent target of Trump’s “tweets.” His departure provides an opportunity for a more Moore-like or Trump-friendly candidate to win the Republican nomination, and be a slightly-less-favored front-runner for the seat, but it’s hard to say that would play elsewhere.
There’s still a chance for the party to make the best of it. Surely there’s something better than Obamacare that the Republicans can come up with, and even if it doesn’t cover everyone at lower prices and is so great it makes your head spin a regular order of hearings and deliberation and compromise and public protests to match what the Democrats have been staging could prevail. Those time-tested Judeo-Christian principles will surely survive Moore’s attempts to impose them on a wary populace. There’s speculation that Corker is bowing out to set up a primary challenge to Trump, and that will prove interesting.
— Bud Norman