For all the fetishization of a both-sides-do-it approach to political analysis, the two major parties are not mirror opposites of one another.
The Democrats are a loose constellation of interest groups tied together by opposition to President Donald Trump, while the Republicans are a vehicle for a comparatively rigid orthodoxy. Conservative activists have a large degree of control over the GOP, many of whose legislators fear a primary challenge from their right much more than they do a Democratic general-election opponent. Establishment Democrats, meanwhile, hold the base at arm’s length, routinely squashing activists’ fire so as not to alarm the donor class.
Between the bloodless “Better Deal,” the laughably pathetic “Have You Seen the Other Guys?” and the over-reliance on bureaucratic-sounding jargon like “single-payer” — a deadening phrase that lacks any rhetorical punch whatsoever — it’s fair to conclude that the Dems are not that good at crafting anything that lands in the solar plexus. For all the faults of the candidates themselves, their strategy in the 2016 election was to pit a hyper-cautious issuer of white papers nobody read against a fire-breathing furniture-thrower, and hope that calm rationality won the day.
In other words, while they might have a steadier hand at the tiller of the ship of state — winding down wars, paying down the deficit, and generally refraining from passing legislation designed to cause widespread immiseration — Democrats aren’t always the best at winning elections against hideously unqualified opponents. The GOP, by contrast, can appear frighteningly effective. From “death panels” on down, they’re better at demagoguing their way into office. They’re great at it, in fact.
But they’re not well-suited to governing. The effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the signature achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency, has sucked whatever oxygen is left in Washington, D.C., that the Russia scandal didn’t already absorb. Alleged master tactician Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, fell flat on his face twice while attempting to shepherd along a bill that should have been a shoo-in (in spite of its ever-increasing unpopularity). But the most revealing quote of the entire months-long saga has came from Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, who told Politico last week that “This is an impossible hand.”
Imagine that. Your party controls all three branches of government, yet somehow, executing the very thing you’ve done in effigy more than 40 times over the last seven years remains tantalizingly out of reach. On Tuesday, wheeling a recuperating John McCain into the chamber in a mirror inverse of an ailing Ted Kennedy voting on Obamacare in 2010 — after the high-quality, government-funded health care the 80-year-old McCain has received for decades made his presence possible — the Republicans managed to ram through a procedural precursor to full repeal with Vice President Pence casting the tie-breaking 51st vote in favor.
Although depicted as some sort of breakthrough against insuperable odds, it was anything but. What it definitely is not is a repeal-and-replace bill. Indeed, while this dry “motion to begin debate” won over a few hesitant GOP senators, all it really does it set the stage for the final intra-party showdown. Having lost two moderate members of his caucus already — senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins wouldn’t even give their assent to further discussion — McConnell must now do what he already failed to do twice. He must give sufficient cover to purple-state squishes like Ohio’s Rob Portman, Arizona’s Jeff Flake, and Nevada’s Dean Heller while simultaneously placating the uncompromising ideologues like Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and that always-odious Texan, Ted Cruz. (Then there’s the president. Will he go to bat for the team? Or will he denounce whatever bill finally emerges as “mean,” the way he did the House’s version?)
But, as McCain’s illness reminds us, a third no vote isn’t the only thing McConnell can’t afford to lose. He must also have perfect attendance. And that brings us to the other dumpster fire currently consuming the Capitol’s neoclassical columns: Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.
As a proponent of state power at its most vicious — his tacit promise to allow civil forfeiture, or the seizure of property from people who haven’t been convicted of anything, is genuinely heinous — you’d think the extreme right would adore Sessions. But it turns out there are still some conservatives who believe in small government, and the idea of cops arbitrarily helping themselves to cash during routine traffic stops strikes such people as an abuse of power.
Worse for him, Sessions has fallen out of the president’s favor. By recusing himself from the Russia probe — but only after he was more or less caught perjuring himself over meetings with Russian officials during the campaign — Sessions put the investigation in former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s hands. Trump, doing everything he can to make himself look as guilty as possible, has fumed about this at such length that it looks as though Sessions’ days might be numbered. (It also begs the question: Why would anyone work for a boss who undermines everyone in public whenever they do their jobs properly?)
Allegedly, the two likeliest replacements for attorney general are Rudy Giuliani and Cruz. Giuliani is a showboat, and we know that Trump can’t abide anyone upstaging him. Cruz is a ruthlessly intelligent person whom Trump humiliated during the 2016 campaign with bizarre insinuations — such as the claim that Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. With his presidential ambitions thwarted and a surprisingly spirited re-election campaign heating up back in Texas, it’s possible Cruz might make the jump to the executive branch.
It’s also worth remembering that this is anything but a matter of parliamentary debate. What’s at stake here are the lives of some 20 to 30 million Americans, whose families will lose their health insurance if the GOP gets its way. Cruz is known to be a huge fan of The Princess Bride, quoting whole passages of dialogue at length. Surely he must know the scene in which Prince Humperdinck bemoans having too much to do, and the Six-Fingered Man tells him to get some rest: “If you haven’t got your health, then you haven’t got anything.”
In any event, Cruz’s resignation would leave poor Mitch McConnell with one fewer vote — at least until the governor of Texas appointed an interim senator. But that’s assuming everything goes well. Up to this point, nothing has gone well. The underlying point here is that, contrary to the existential angst on the left after Nov. 8, 2016, what should be smooth sailing for the GOP has been gummed up at every turn by a self-reinforcing web of lies and machinations, all under the fiat of a fickle, untrustworthy man-child who evinces no interest in health-care policy or the nitty-gritty of legislative sausage-making.
Meanwhile, we’re fully one-quarter the way through the 115th U.S. Congress — and the real uphill battle was always going to be tax reform. Assuming Trump possesses any political capital after this saga wraps up, the clock is running out. 2018 will be here soon. Like the preparations for Y2K, which might seem Chicken Little-ish in hindsight but which prudently and pre-emptively defused a potential nightmare scenario, the post-Obama left’s permanent DEFCON 1 setting may look to some people like alarmism rather than vigilance. And asking people to stand down invites complacency, which is never good. But it might be possible that the Trump administration and its Republican allies are simply too incompetent to be evil. Obamacare repeal has caused them a great deal of pain. But as the Dread Pirate Roberts once said, life is pain, and anyone who says differently is selling something.