The end of the Republican Party

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In 2008, my friend Jason and I engaged in a little friendly electoral wager. For whatever it is worth, he beat me quite soundly in nearly every category.

What lead to that friendly online series of predictions on my old blog was a robust conversation about politics, and, interestingly, the potential break-up of the Republican Party. It seems easy to say we thought of this now, but remember: our conversation happened before the rise of the tea party lunacy. Even more important, the email back-and-forth we had came in the thick of the fight between the Clinton campaign and the Obama campaign. It looked in those days that a split in the Democratic Party would happen before the GOP would ever break up. After that, John McCain lost his mind and hired on Sarah Palin, which quelled the nascent wing-nut voices rising in the party, but also had the unintended consequence of legitimizing them.

Fast forward to today. Or, rather, fast forward through the last five or so years. Republicans have won many political battles — notably retaining the House of Representatives, though even that is largely thanks to gerrymandering — but they are losing the larger political war. President Obama’s signature legislative initiative, the Affordable Care Act, is the law of the land, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. It is being implemented today, providing millions of Americans with health care coverage. Much can be said of the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — and polling shows that it is both controversial and largely misunderstood. But at the core of it, and for as imperfect as it is, it provides something many Americans simply didn’t have access to before. Republicans find themselves hard-pressed — at best — to argue against it.

Of course, the real spark that ignited the tea party was the passage of the stimulus — the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which President Obama signed in 2009. Love it or hate it, it spurred economic growth — albeit slow — at the outset of the greatest recession since the Great Depression. Anti-government fanatics nonetheless went haywire. It was tax-and-spend unleashed. But, like Obamacare, it saved millions of Americans (maybe every American, and probably the global economy). After the bill was signed, unemployment claims began to subside. The private sector proceeded to create jobs for twenty-three straight months, robbing Republicans of a critical talking point against a president they already reviled. 

The far-right conservative voices only grew louder, angrier when, in 2009, the federal government spent $62 billion to bail out GM and Chrysler. But in the first quarter of 2011, all Big Three automakers posted positive quarterly net profits. GM’s first quarter 2011 profit was nearly triple its profit from the same quarter a year before. It’s hard to make your anti-government case when there are more than 100,000 auto industry employees back at work since the bailout.

But the story being constructed was more than just about saving the world’s economy, national financial institutions, and American industry. It was about social issues, too. There have been a long list of smaller — what I call granular — policies from this administration that have put Republicans in such a difficult box, it’s hard to see how they continue as a national party in any meaningful, unified way. 

Obama repealed the horrible “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” started in the Clinton Administration. He boosted fuel economy standards. He signed an order expanding stem cell research. He gave the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco.

All of those things might normally find quiet bi-partisan support in the everyday workings of Washington, D.C. Some did. But they also fed the hungry beast of a rapidly metastasizing Republican-like organism that was growing to not only hate government but hate the act of governance itself. Which is weird, of course, because for better or worse, we are a self-governing people. 

President Obama came to office promising to change the way business was done. Republicans as well as my fellow Democrats lament that this has been his biggest failure. I think they’re wrong. I think he has changed everything. And this ridiculous government shutdown proves it. 

President Obama has done little more than deliver — or attempt to deliver — on what the American people wanted, whether they even fully understood what they wanted or not. It helps to view the Obama Presidency through the lens of his predecessor, a disconnected, aloof, goofball who preferred to run government like a corporation (and not a very good one), ceding difficult calls around governance to a power-hungry vice-president one could only describe as incomprehensibly evil.

People wanted to feel their government was doing something for them, not to them. And so it is something of an irony that the only slender message left for the tea party-driven Republican Party to deliver is that the terrible usurper in the Oval Office is burdening us all with “big government”.  The irony is made all the worse by virtue of the fact that it is not true.

And it is in this untruth — that Obama has exploded the size of government (not true), that Obama has spent more money than any president previously (also not true) — that the Republican Party may finally be collapsing upon itself.

To be sure, there are Republicans who want to govern, who believe in governance. One of them would be Congressman Bill Young, who has served in Congress longer than any Republican there today. You don’t spend more than forty years in Congress and not believe in the power, the virtue of government of the people, by the people, for the people, to paraphrase yet another Republican.

Voices like those belonging to Congressman Young, who just announced his retirement, are not winning the day in Washington. The shutdown — and subsequent fight over Obamacare — has drug the national Republican Party to its lowest polling numbers, ever. Worse, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows “Obama’s political standing has remained relatively stable since the shutdown, with his approval rating ticking up two points since last month, and with the Democratic Party’s favorability rating declining just three points (from 42 percent to 39 percent).” 

President Obama has either kept or compromised to keep 70% of his campaign promises. He’s working on another 6%. Perhaps this is 76% of executive orders, policies, and legislation you do not care for. But it is something. It is governance. And across the spectrum, this body of work ultimately touches ever life in America, perhaps even most lives across the globe in some capacity. 

The Republicans have the shutdown. This is Week Two of the shutdown, and already we have seen the lowest approval ratings for the GOP in history. Indeed, I have heard faint, quiet whispers of a Democratic takeover of the House, the heavy price to be inflicted on belligerent Republicans. What will Week Three bring?

Yes, conversations around 2014 have already begun. When I talked with Jason in 2008, I imagined a quick break-up, something over days and weeks. A new, more conservative party rising out of the ashes of the establishment GOP. I still think that is going to happen. It is happening. It is just taking longer than I thought — a slow, agonizing, hard to watch death of a once-proud party that has nothing left for which to stand.