The role of “moderate” Republicans in the Trump end-game

by William Hausdorff

I started writing for this blog 15 months ago, in July of 2016, when it became evident that Trump was about to capture the Republican nomination for President.  In the first column, I conveyed my bewilderment that “decent individuals” of the Republican establishment were playing along with Trump.  I noted the creepy parallel with how the conservative German political establishment played along with Hitler in the early 1930s.

Even before Trump was inaugurated the questions continued--would the Republican Senate majority blithely approve all of his cabinet nominations, no matter how crazy, nasty, or unqualified?

Only one Trump cabinet nominee failed to be confirmed.  Most strikingly, even though the National Security Advisor position is not subject to Senate confirmation, the certifiable whack-job Michael Flynn was named to the post with nary a Senate peep despite his and his son/advisor’s tweets on all manner of sick, bizarre conspiracy theories.

Since then, the deranged toddler-president, a serial liar, openly corrupt in so many ways, bitterly obsessed with his predecessor and his opponent in the last election, continues to be loathed by more than half of the population.  Lashing out uncontrollably on all topics and individuals trivial and powerful, especially women, black athletes, and Hispanics, he flagrantly and personally taunts the nuclear-armed North Korean dictator, and declares his scorn for the victims of catastrophic hurricanes and flooding in Puerto Rico by hinting at viciously cutting off vital humanitarian relief. 

Meanwhile, by unilaterally withdrawing from international agreements, the US government is systematically alienating its closest allies in Europe, as well as the other superpowers badly needed to help control North Korea and the still volatile Syrian situation.

This is not just bad for the US, it’s bad for business and bad for the Party in power.  For these reasons, I believe this is not sustainable.  The federal government cannot continue to function like this, even in the medium term.  I believe that the Party in power recognizes that.

So, where are most Senate Republicans today?

It is true that the manifest incompetence of the administration in failing to inspire, guide, cajole, or even effectively threaten the legislative branch of government has meant that the Republican Congress—perhaps more ideologically united than any in recent history--has been unable to produce a single coherent, professionally elaborated piece of legislation on any topic.  But this is misleading as a gauge of Senate Republican views, because the failures are largely due to the votes of 2 or 3 senators.

In fact, according to FiveThirtyEight.Com, Senate Republicans have voted for Trump’s legislative positions 93% of the time.  Individual senators’ scores range from a low of 80% and 83% (Susan Collins and John McCain, respectively) to 96% (many Republican senators).

To put this in perspective, the Democrats who vote with Trump most often are Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, at 55% and 51% of the time, respectively.  All the rest of the Dems and independents are <50%, down to 8% (Kirsten Gillibrand).

What about the “reasonable” Republicans?

Despite this endorsement, by all press accounts, a substantial proportion of the Republican Senate recognizes the dangerous situation for what it is. By all accounts, a substantial portion of the Republican Senate collectively wince at every Presidential tweet-fart, and some occasionally respond to these noxious emissions in kind.  Many apparently share the views of Senator Bob Corker (hardly a raging liberal) that the White House has become an adult day care in which only the adult minders stand between him and World War III.

Incidentally, the “adults in the room” trope is less reassuring when one recalls that in 2000 the foreign policy establishment had offered similar assurances about the recently “elected” and equally vacuous (but not personally vicious) President in 2000: thank God Bush Jr. surrounded himself with the “steady, competent hands” of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell! 

If we focus on the Senate, beyond McCain and Collins, there are a number of “reasonable” Republicans who are not obviously stupid or venal, and who either during the campaign or since the inauguration have occasionally appeared thoughtful or semi-independent.  While Corker is the most recent example, Senators Sasse, Flake, Heller, Murkowski, Portman, Graham, Cassidy, Moran, Rubio, Burr, and Alexander have each at one time or another showed a glimmer of free thinking.

In light of this, it is curious how rare it is for an article to highlight their complicity in quietly supporting, for example, the embarrassing mess that was the Graham-Cassidy health care bill. In fact, taken together they have voted for Trump’s positions 91.5% of the time.

Why do the “reasonable” Republicans go along with it?

The conventional wisdom, even in publications known for their rigorous investigative journalism, is that it’s all about fear of paying the political price, most notably a right-wing primary challenge.  For example, in a recent New Yorker article:

In terms of the ease with which Republicans in Congress can oppose Trump, “there is a hierarchy, in ascending order,” the Hill veteran said, with House “members and senators in cycle next year” at the bottom, followed by “senators who intend to run for reelection but are not in cycle next year,” then “senators who will probably retire but have not yet announced,” and finally, at the top, “senators who have announced they will retire.”

Corker’s decision not to run again and his subsequent emboldment fits this truism. You would therefore expect that Senators up for reelection in 2018 would be more likely to support Trump’s program than those in 2020, a Presidential election year when the dynamic will certainly be quite different, and certainly more so than in 2022.  And yet we see no such pattern.  Again, according to FiveThirtyEight.Com:

·      The 7 Republican senators running in 2018 voted with Trump 94% of the time.
·      The 21 Republican senators up for election in 2020 voted with Trump 94% of the time.
·      The 22 Republican Senators up for election in 2022 voted with Trump 93% of the time.

Let’s focus on only the subgroup of Senators most likely to speak their mind:  the 10 Republican senators who will be >80 in 2020 or 2022 when they are up for re-election, or who have already pledged to retire (these include McCain and Corker).  Yet one finds they too voted 93% of the time with Trump. 

If fear of direct electoral retribution is not the real driving force here, there still could be a related explanation:  perhaps they simply don’t want to be attacked publicly, either by members of their “team” or by the Senate leadership, or to be subjected to bullying Trump.  Pure political and personal cowardice says Aaron Blake of the Washington Post.  But that hardly seems a sufficient explanation for elected officials who likely have endured and/or promoted nasty campaigns in the past. 

Another, not mutually exclusive, explanation is that they generally agree with the policy goals of the President—i.e., there are no longer any “moderate” Republicans in the Senate, except perhaps for Susan Collins (and she voted with Trump 80% of the time).  But this is complicated too.  If they really are true believers that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in health care, as Rand Paul may be, and still take their job in the Senate seriously, then you would expect them to be committed to an intelligently designed, systematic (though cruel) dismantling of Obamacare.

This doesn’t seem to be the case.  A recent Vox interview with several Republican senators suggested that a free-floating attraction of the Graham-Cassidy bill was that it was “giving control to the States.”  But few of the Senators interviewed by Vox appeared to know really what was in the bill, nor were aware of nor even seemed to care that funding for the states was to be slashed by 20-30%.  In reality, Graham-Cassidy was, by all accounts, an embarrassing shambles from both policy and procedural perspectives.  No senator who took his/her job seriously would have voted for it, and it proved even too much for McCain, Lindsey Graham’s buddy.

The bottom line is nihilism

In other words, the “moderate” Republican Senators simply don’t care that millions will lose insurance, that pre-existing conditions will once again effectively block people from affording heath care, and that it would disintegrate in a mess.  Which suggests to me that in reality, it’s post-ideological: the vast majority share Trump’s brand of nihilism. 

Almost all Senate Republicans essentially believe in the same things as Trump:  it’s a free for all, survival of the fittest, cut taxes on the rich, plunder the environment—it’s a nasty, brutish existence.  The poor, and especially blacks, are mainly to blame for their fate.  America is alone in the world. What is it but nihilistic to watch your state incinerate every summer and fall, or be walloped by increasingly destructive hurricanes and floods, and adamantly refuse to accept that addressing man-made global warming is a major priority?

I suspect their differences with the groper-in-chief mainly come down to style—he’s too coarse, too openly crude, too overtly racist.  But the policies and fundamental world view are the same.  So there will be no impeachment hearings or serious challenges from the Senate no matter what he does.

The End Game

Except that, in the meantime, everyone knows the G-men are closing in.  The only real question is whether Mueller’s crackerjack investigators will bring the Beast and his cronies down in one fell swoop or whether it will be a just a long, slow, but ultimately lethal, bloodletting.

Not surprisingly, there are also increasing reports that Trump’s mental health is deteriorating, though it’s not clear how one could tell.  I’m waiting for Trump to make an appearance at the Presidential podium decked out only in his Harvey Weinstein signature bathrobe.

The self-castration of the Senate (borrowing Corker’s lovely metaphor about Rex Tillerson) doesn’t mean all is lost.  It is now apparent to all but the full knuckle draggers (apologies to the Neanderthals) that Trump doesn’t have any policy agenda he is committed to implementing.  The closest thing is his pathetic obsession with trying to reverse whatever Obama has said or done.  While he’s making a good try through executive orders, it’s not clear how successful it will ultimately be. 

What really drives Trump is the politics of personal resentment, concern about his image and his brand.  Numerous reports suggest his hotels and Mar-A-Gogo are starting to take an economic hit, though a few others report the opposite.  If his brand is truly being damaged, and more stars, athletes, businessmen, and even Republican politicians continue to take wounding potshots at him, he’ll be looking for an exit strategy.  Especially if Mueller’s probe begins to entangle members of his family.  After all, despite his tough words his tendency has been to settle lawsuits left and right, rather than pursue them to the bitter end. 

Mueller needs a few more months.  I’m not a bettor on this topic, though many others are, including his erstwhile “autobiographer,” and yet it seems increasingly plausible to me that by June 2018 an unhappy, beaten down, loopy Trump will declare victory and resign to play golf full time.  Plenty of time to muse about his next reality show.