What Would a Frustrated Republican Say On the Way Out?

by Neil H. Buchanan

A surprisingly large number of Republicans have announced their departures from Congress this year.  Including those who are retiring, resigning, and running for other offices, there are currently 25 members of the House who are either already gone or will not be back in January 2019.  Most are not well known.  More prominently, Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake are also quitting in disgust.

This is more than a bit unusual, because it is usually the minority party that suffers big losses of experienced people.  Why stick around, especially in the majority-is-everything House, when you are in the minority and when there are no White House perks or photo ops to make your job exciting?

But Republicans are leaving in droves.  I will leave it to others to ponder what this means about the majority party's leadership and Donald Trump.  My question today focuses on what the Republican leavers will say and do as they walk out the door.  Will they unload a political version of "take this job and shove it," revealing their true thoughts about the policies that they were expected to support?

We always, of course, see some amount of post mortem venting by political types.  Politicians have huge egos and long memories, and it is not surprising that they engage in score-settling when they can.  It is almost required behavior.

Former House speaker John Boehner, for example, recently made news by using vulgarities to describe already-resigned Jason Chaffetz and too-bad-he-won't-resign Jim Jordan (who runs the most extreme conservative caucus in the House).  On the Democratic side, former party chairwoman Donna Brazile is making waves as she promotes her book-length attempt to blame everything on Hillary Clinton.

What is notable, yet somehow completely unsurprising, is that this type of personal unburdening almost always boils down to personal gripes rather than matters of substance.  "He was a camera hound and made my job more difficult!"  "She didn't respect me and made mistakes that I could have helped her avoid."  Interesting in their way, I suppose, but not all that enlightening for those who do not thrive on insider gossip and high school payback.

I want to see something different.  It would be fascinating (to say nothing of satisfying) if even one Republican were to say something like this: "I can't believe some of the stuff that I've allowed myself to support all this time.  Now that I'm leaving, I no longer have to pretend to believe half the crap that I've had to say in order to remain in office."

Being part of a political party, after all, necessarily means making internal compromises.  Unless and until a person decides to adjust his views to precisely mirror those of his chosen party (a possibility that I discuss below), no party could ever take all of the policy positions that the person would choose on his own.

Trivially, this is why party leaders in the United States so frequently try to talk about their party being a "big tent."  In its non-cynical use, this is a way of saying that people will be heard but must understand that the party has supporters with a range of views and thus that some level of frustration is every member's fate.  Cynically, on the other hand, it is merely a way of saying, "Do what we say and don't complain."

This is intensified immeasurably for those who wish to hold office.  There are some things that simply cannot be admitted out loud for anyone who wants to survive in a political party.  Holding one's tongue becomes a way of life, and politicians have their own ways of pretending that they are not bothered by what they have to do.

All of this means, however, that someone who is leaving office should be especially willing -- even eager -- to set the record straight.  "What a jerk my colleagues were" is one thing, but "I can't believe what I had to vote for" would be the big story.

Because columns like this one are supposed to proceed from the assumption that "both sides do it," I will now acknowledge that a Democratic retiree would also have reason to want to have a cathartic moment.  "I would limit abortions much more than is allowed by the party's platform (and primary voters), so I voted for some things that I didn't like.  My alternatives were to sign on with the other party, which would eliminate the right to choose entirely -- and which has views on inequality, the environment, and war that I find more unacceptable than my party's views on abortion."

Although every Democrat could surely offer a version of that statement, differing with her colleagues on one or more specific issues, the fact is that the Democratic Party's range of views within which an officeholder can maintain her electoral viability is decidedly mainstream.  On virtually every issue, majorities of voters agree with the Democrats' approach -- because the Democrats are not (and never have been) the "left-wing party" but in fact have become the moderate party.

Put differently, I could certainly imagine a Democrat in office feeling discomfort here or there on specific issues, but the requirements and expectations of being a Democrat do not force a person to hold her nose about extremist views.

And then there is the party that Republicans have become.  Even before Donald Trump's deadly form of invasive political carcinoma entered the body politic, Republicans had spent decades becoming more and more extreme across the full range of issues.

Moreover, there was no obvious reason why a person with extreme views on one of the Republicans central causes would agree on the others.  Most obviously, cultural conservatives and Wall Street conservatives were and are an odd coupling extraordinaire.  But even within those categories, there is no reason that, say, gun absolutists would find religious fundamentalists to be acceptable allies.

Somehow, the Republican identity reached the point over the last decade or so where acceptable views were not only extreme on every issue but were absolutist across the board.  If it is difficult to imagine an anti-abortion (in all cases) Democrat, it is impossible to think of a Republican politician who differs even a smidgen on an entire range of issues, both economic and social.

This means that a departing Republican could have a lot to talk about.  It is somehow both easy and impossible to imagine such a Republican saying something like this:
"I signed up for the Republican Party thirty years ago because I believed in Ronald Reagan's optimism and openness to the world, and I believe in a relatively small government.  But over time, I found that I was not even allowed to think about voting for background checks on gun purchases, or to avoid default by voting to increase the debt ceiling, or to give LGBTQ people the same civil rights that I take for granted.  I found that I could not even say out loud that Hillary Clinton is not a she-devil who belongs in jail.

"I still believe in small government, but now I have to pretend that allowing large corporations to stash money offshore to avoid taxes is what 'freedom' is all about.  I have to smile wanly while people in my party -- the party of Abraham Lincoln, for heavens' sake -- say that supporting 'heritage' means honoring (with statues) people who committed treason.  I have to look at my working constituents and tell them that they are better off with more dangerous workplaces.  At most, I am allowed to say that 'the science is unsettled' on climate change.  It all became too much, even though I still believe in what made me a Republican in the first place."
As I noted above, maybe such a person long ago decided to survive by adapting his views to those of his party (and to continue adapting as the party lurched further and further into a fact-free world, unencumbered by logic).  If so, their self-brainwashing would make it unnecessary to unburden their consciences with a statement like the one that I imagined here.

If not, however, then we should see something more than we are seeing from the Republican leavers.  Take Corker, who is apparently a hawk on both the budget and the military.  His views on foreign policy are actually well within the range of acceptable thought among Democrats (who still have quite a few hawks in their ranks), but his views on the budget are apparently extreme (in the orthodox debt-is-always-bad sense).  And even if he might have felt personally comfortable in the more conservative wing of the Democratic Party, both habit and political survival in Tennessee required him to toe the Republican line for all of the crazy stuff.

If all of that is true, however, then we should see Corker -- and, for that matter, Flake, who has an even more conservative voting record but who is not a blind follower -- saying more than "Trump scares me."

Take the courts.  Maybe it is too much to expect Corker or Flake to say, "You know what, I regret having been pulled into a scheme by which my party violated all known norms and stole a Supreme Court seat and held open dozens of federal court seats for years.  I did it because I was willing to trade part of my soul in order to get what I wanted on my core issues or to become chairman of a committee where I could do the most good."

But it should not be too much to expect them, now that they have thirteen months of service remaining, to identify which parts of their party's extremism is too much for them.

They could, for example, refuse to vote for the blatantly unqualified nominees for the federal judiciary that the Trump team has put forward.  They could break ranks on at least the most basic gun-related measures.  They could work to re-fund the Children's Health Insurance Program or work with Democrats to make the Affordable Care Act work better for vulnerable people.

Almost two years ago, I asked what it would take for a Republican who views himself as non-extreme to give up on his party.  My point was that there was essentially nothing left for such Republicans to cling to, other than habit and loyalty.  My larger point was that the tradeoffs necessary for a person to remain a Republican -- even if he believes in some core Republican positions -- should have long since become too much to endure.

The current wave of retirements will help us to understand whether my conclusions in late 2015 were correct.  If I was wrong that the Republican Party had driven out everyone except those who are genuinely unhinged, we should see some evidence among the Republicans who are heading for the exits that they are delighted not to have to pretend to buy the BS anymore.

And if we do not see any of that, even from the people who have taken a stand against Trump, then we will know a sad truth about the current state of a once-reasonable party: They truly believe all of the crazy stuff that they say and do.