Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gestures to House Speaker Mike Johnson.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
This week has shown the extent of congressional Republicans’ struggles.Now, even the Senate GOP seems to be going through it.Trump has clearly worsened the situation, but the rot was there long before him.
House Republicans’ rudderless direction has begun to spread across the Capitol.
No, chaos is not a communicable disease, but this entire week in Washington has put on full display the decay inside the Republican Party. Look no further than Tuesday night when House Republicans plowed ahead with two votes that they didn’t have to hold. In a matter of minutes, their twin failures illustrated the directionless that has personified their thin majority.
House Speaker Mike Johnson on Wednesday sounded like a disappointed coach befuddled by a last-minute trick play. He said that the GOP had not anticipated that Rep. Al Green, a Texas Democrat, recovering from surgery, would be rushed to the House floor to cast the vote that spoiled the GOP’s push to impeach the first Cabinet secretary in nearly 150 years. Still, it’s not exactly a flea flicker fumblerooski when someone fails to count.
“Last night was a setback but democracy is messy, we live in a time of divided government, we have a razor-thin margin here, and every vote counts,” Johnson told reporters on Wednesday. “Sometimes when you’re counting votes and people show up when they are not expected to be in the building, it changes the equation.”
Across the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing increasing calls for him to step aside after conservatives nuked a bipartisan border security-Ukraine aid deal that some Republicans themselves said they had wanted.
“The reason we’ve been talking about the border is because they wanted to, the persistent critics,” McConnell told Politico. “You can’t pass a bill without dealing with a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate.”
Trump is not the sole cause but he has exacerbated the GOP’s problems.
It is fair to say that former President Donald Trump looms over everything. He is an all-consuming force that has reigned over American politics since shortly after he announced his 2016 presidential campaign. After all, it was Trump who instructed Republicans to kill the bipartisan immigration deal before the text was actually released. The former president has also cheered on efforts to wield impeachment, one of Congress’ most powerful actions, as a cudgel, surmising that since Democrats impeached him twice it is only fair to respond with retribution.
And yet, it’s not Trump alone. Hyperpartisanship was spreading long before his arrival. And with it, came the decline of split-ticket voting and perhaps the belief that good policy could come from sweeping bipartisan compromises. (I’m required to note that while that era produced policies that forever changed American life, such as The Americans with Disabilities Act, it also spawned the Iraq War, which is now widely viewed as a foreign policy disaster. There was no unalloyed “Golden Age.”) The Tea Party’s rise in response to George W. Bush-era Republicanism sent a generation of lawmakers to Washington ready to fuck shit up even if it was not entirely clear how they would achieve their goals or if the tactics (threatening the full faith and credit of the nation) were worth the result.
Congressional leaders also lost power along the way. Freshmen lawmakers used the new media environment to build platforms that surpassed the elder leaders that were handing out directions. Not all of this change was bad, but collectively, as has been documented extensively, the current reality is undeniably different.
“Politics used to be the art of the possible,” Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, told reporters, per Semafor. “Now it’s the art of the impossible. We’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.””
The story of one senator tells it all.
Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma might serve as the best example of this. Lankford, a former congressman and youth pastor, is a staunch conservative. He is also not an outspoken iconoclast like some of his colleagues. It made sense that McConnell would tap him to be the lead Republican on the bipartisan border-Ukraine deal.
Lankford co-produced a package with some of the most conservative immigration policies that leading Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have ever supported. He even brought along the Chamber of Commerce, once the gold standard for GOP policies, and the Border Patrol Union, the latter of which endorsed Trump in 2020.
Before the bill was even released, the Oklahoma Republican party formally censured Lankford. Half-truths and outright lies about the legislation spread through conservative media. Trump and even a few Republicans said the quiet part out loud: the election was more important than any potential fix for the border crisis.
“Some of them have been very clear with me that they have political differences with the bill,” Lankford said in a floor speech on Wednesday.
“They say it’s the wrong time to solve the problem,” he said. “In fact, I had a popular commentator four weeks ago that I talked to — before they knew any of the contents of the bill, any of the contents, nothing was out at that point, that told me flat out that if you try to try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you.”
The one true leader of the GOP had spoken.