The collision of the new President’s agenda with the old one’s impeachment trial this week sharpens the question: Just what kind of Republican opposition does the Democrat in the White House face?
If the GOP remains an honest voice for a wide swath of Americans in the democratic competition of ideas, President Joe Biden has reason to follow his instincts toward common ground on Covid-19 relief and the rest of his agenda. But if the GOP has devolved into something else – dishonest, detached from reality, bent on gaining power by undemocratic means if necessary – he can justify skipping the time and effort.
Biden has straddled the question so far. But Republican leaders plainly fear the party risks forfeiting its historic claim as the mainstream conservative alternative to Democratic liberalism.
Distinguishing his party from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky warned last week that “loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and our country.” The 2012 GOP presidential nominee, now-Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, called the Republican tent “not large enough to both accommodate conservatives and kooks.”
Biden's First 100 Days
Yet House Republican leaders refused to sanction Greene for having suggested violence against political opponents. The party remains in thrall to former President Donald Trump, even after his flagrant lies about the 2020 election incited a deadly insurrection at the US Capitol.
Most GOP senators, who begin weighing impeachment charges this week, have already voted to shield Trump by declaring the trial unconstitutional. Most House Republicans have done the same, concluding that challenging the disgraced ex-President is crazier than any QAnon fantasy.
“The broad picture of the Republican Party is really ugly,” says Jack Pitney, a former national GOP official who now teaches political science at Claremont McKenna College in California. “A hot mess of nuts and cowards.”
Larry Sabato, the nonpartisan director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, has concluded after events of the past three months that America’s two-party system now has one normally functioning entity and another that appears “insane.”
“The Republican Party is unsalvageable as a center-right party,” says Sabato. “You can’t treat the situation as normal.”
It’s tempting to assume the situation will revert to normal. The GOP has endured for the better part of two centuries as the champion of one of America’s two core philosophic traditions.
Of the last 26 presidential elections, Republicans have won 13. It could easily win the next one – and recapture both chambers of Congress before then.
But the party’s beliefs and behavior have changed in tandem with its anxierty about long-term decline. Republicans have grown increasingly dependent on the votes of working-class Whites who fear that cultural and economic change leaves them behind in the diversifying, globally connected America of the 21st century.
Those changes grew more vivid after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory made him the first Black president. Trump gained a following by propagating the racist lie that Obama hadn’t been born in the United States and thus could not legitimately hold the office.
Inside Congress, an increasingly combative House GOP caucus blocked its leaders from compromising with Obama. McConnell worked to deny Obama’s agenda bipartisan legitimacy by dissuading fellow Republicans from helping him; eventually he blocked the Senate from even considering an Obama Supreme Court nominee.
The party entertained changing direction after Obama won a second term in 2012. A post-election “autopsy” presented by then-Chairman Reince Priebus – later Trump’s first chief of staff – called for steps to make the GOP more competitive by broadening its appeal to women, non-Whites and young voters. As Trump’s appeals to racial resentment gained traction in the 2016 campaign, GOP rival Rick Perry called him a “cancer” on conservatism.
Then Trump and his fervent base bowled over the field. Priebus went into the West Wing; Perry joined Trump’s Cabinet, after a turn on “Dancing with the Stars.” Last fall, McConnell abandoned the principle he made up to justify blocking Obama’s court pick to replace the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia – that it was too close to a presidential election – to muscle through Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett even closer to Election Day.
Following Biden’s victory, Republican leaders encouraged Trump’s strongman posture by facilitating his lies that the election had been stolen. With the electorate drifting against them, they now seek to make it harder to vote.
Republican militancy creates ferocious headwinds against any Biden attempt at bipartisan compromise. “He has to deal with an increasing number who operate outside any traditional definition of conservatism,” says Phil Schiliro, who served as Obama’s liaison to Congress. “That’s an enormous challenge.”
Ten of 50 Republican senators made Biden an initial Covid-relief offer nowhere near the new President’s proposal. More, heeding the demands of their inflamed rank and file, have offered instant hostility; Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio accused Biden of having “governed from the radical left” less than 48 hours into his term.
“The Republican Party is at this point hostage to a base that does not approve of it governing,” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party.” “Do I think the Republican Party’s going to stand up to its base? Not anytime soon.”
With opposition like that, Sabato says Democrats would be justified in ramming through whatever legislation they can with their fleeting grasp of power. Many of their goals, including legislation to protect voting rights, would require abolishing the Senate filibuster.
McConnell warns of a “nightmare” turnabout when Republicans regain the upper hand. But Pitney – who once worked alongside the legendarily bare-knuckled GOP operative Lee Atwater – says Republicans wouldn’t hesitate to abolish the filibuster themselves if it served their purposes.
“Bad faith is their catechism,” Pitney says. “Democrats need to recognize what they’re dealing with.”