Monday

November 20th, 2017

Insight

The GOP establishment still can't figure out how to work with Trump

Rich Lowry

By Rich Lowry

Published Sept. 26, 2017

 The GOP establishment still can't figure out how to work with Trump
The Republican Party can't pass ObamaCare repeal but it can nominate Roy Moore.

This is the state of the GOP in a nutshell. It's a party locked in mortal combat between an establishment that is ineffectual and unimaginative and a populist wing that is ineffectual and inflamed. It is rare for a governing coalition to have a bitter factional fight - usually the party out of power deploys the circular firing squads - although, on the other hand, this particular coalition isn't doing much governing.

It'd be hard to design a primary fight more characteristic of the GOP's current state than Luther Strange vs. Roy Moore.

Strange was the state attorney general investigating disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley, who ended up appointing him to the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions not long before Bentley resigned because of a sex scandal. Since Strange had attained the sainted status of incumbent and would be a thoroughly adequate time-server, the establishment piled in behind him like it was trying to save Arthur Vandenberg.

The prospect of Moore had something to do with the effort. The twice-former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court is to the judiciary what Joe Arpaio is to sheriffdom - neither was particularly good at their precise duties, but both had a knack for the theatrical, polarizing cause.

It isn't shocking that Moore prevailed. Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell and Richard Mourdock all won primaries in 2010-2012 in less-conservative states based on anti-establishment energy, although under a Tea Party/constitutionalist rather than Trumpist/populist banner. The difference between Moore and these antecedents is that he's running in a state so red that he can survive whatever outlandish statements he adds to his oeuvre between now and the December special election.

It's an irony that in a race featuring a candidate as Trumpian as they come, Trump was on the other side. The president presumably won't let that happen again.

The biggest loser in Alabama was Mitch McConnell. He is certainly the best Republican Senate leader in a generation. The conservative grass roots, though, has never been fond of Senate leaders who inevitably reflect the caution and process-obsession of the institution.

This sentiment is unlikely to be expressed in ways that make it easier to get anything done, as Moore's victory proves. Flame-throwing and ill-informed, the presumptive next senator from Alabama isn't going to help craft legislation. His backers say he supports the Trump agenda, but Moore was against the Graham-Cassidy health-care bill that the president desperately wanted to get over the finish line.

The result in Alabama will render Trump even more up for grabs everywhere else. Is he going to simply move on and work with the congressional leadership on the next big priority, tax reform? Is he going to exercise the "Chuck and Nancy" option? Is he going to double down on his base and resume afflicting the comfortable of the GOP establishment as he did in the primaries? All of the above? Does he know?

Trump's problem isn't that he threw in with the establishment, as his most fervent supporters believe; it's that he threw in with an establishment that had no idea how to process his victory and integrate populism into the traditional Republican agenda.

One of the many causes of the failure of ObamaCare repeal is that Republicans didn't emphasize the economic interests of the working-class voters that propelled Trump to victory (and Trump showed little sign of caring about this himself). Out of the gate, tax reform looks to have a similar problem - the Trumpist element is supposed to be a middle-class tax cut, but it's not obvious that it delivers one.

This gets to a fundamental failing of the populists. House Speaker Paul Ryan isn't supposed to be the populist; Trump is. But the president and his backers haven't even started to seriously think through what a workable populist platform is besides inveighing against internal party enemies, igniting cable TV-friendly controversies and overinvesting in symbolic measures like The Wall.

If the populists don't like the results, they should take their own political project more seriously, if they are capable of it.

A success on taxes would provide some respite from the party's internal dissension, yet the medium-term forecast has to be for more recrimination than governing. Whatever the core competency of the national Republican Party is at the moment, it certainly isn't forging coherence or creating legislative achievements.

Columnists

Toons

Lifestyles