There’s a logic gap so glaring in this rollicking political season that it deserves more notice. It runs like this: Elected Republicans, especially in the House, are suffering for promising huge changes – such as repealing Obamacare – and failing to deliver.
The only thing more absurd than politicians promising to force a president named Obama to repeal “Obamacare” is the notion that millions of Americans would buy it – and then lash out at their GOP representatives for deceiving them.
Yet that’s exactly what’s happening, it seems, as rank-and-file Republicans pay for blithely exaggerating what’s possible in a divided government. Fiercely anti-establishment candidates – Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and fading-but-still-there Ben Carson – dominate the GOP presidential contest. A recent Fox News poll found that 60 percent of Republicans feel betrayed by their party. Two-thirds of GOP primary voters say congressional Republicans haven’t done enough to block Obama’s agenda.
One might think the twice-elected president has the clout of a county commissioner.
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Ryan Lizza’s good New Yorker article, “A House Divided,” has several examples. Rep. David Brat, the Virginia Republican who defeated party leader Eric Cantor, says “we haven’t fought” to achieve goals such as defunding Planned Parenthood and blocking Obama’s proposed immigration changes.
Well, many would say the 16-day Republican-led government shutdown of 2013 amounted to tough fighting. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told Lizza that just before the shutdown, more than half of all House Republicans “really believed we could shut the government down and ultimately Obama would repeal Obamacare.”
Think about that. How do leaders of a serious political party convince themselves – or more importantly, convince millions of voters – that an easily re-elected president, whose party still controlled the Senate, would cry “uncle” and deep-six his greatest domestic achievement? Especially when the opposition’s cudgel was a widely unpopular shutdown!
It’s not Donald Trump who makes today’s GOP look nonserious. It’s pandering lawmakers who tell gullible supporters they can achieve miracles if their team will only “fight harder.” If we glare and pound the table more fiercely, why, yes, Harry Reid’s knees will buckle and Senate Democrats won’t use their filibuster powers to block an Obamacare repeal. And President Obama will whimper and sign the repeal rather than veto it.
This unicorns-and-tooth-fairy logic is all the more worthy of disdain because it typically rises from conservatives who claim to revere the Constitution. Even if you skipped seventh-grade civics the day it covered the presidential veto, you’ve probably heard of it. It’s right there in Article 1, Section 7. It takes two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate to override a veto, a threshold neither party can muster.
And while the filibuster isn’t in the Constitution, it’s entrenched in Senate tradition. That’s why Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – no slouch at partisan warfare – refuses to play “let’s pretend” about the prospects of undoing Obama’s agenda.
The strange thing is, congressional Republicans have notched significant victories, and a reasonable (not fantasizing) constituency would take some pleasure. They’ve made nearly all of George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanent. They’ve slowed spending growth and reduced the deficit. They’ve hog-tied Democrats’ efforts to liberalize immigration and tighten gun laws.
But many GOP lawmakers willfully fuel the notion that it’s not enough to fight hard, win every possible concession in a democratically divided government and battle for more power in the next election. For all their talk about needing to really fight, many doctrinaire conservatives seem intent on nothing less than winning every single battle, 100 percent, as if Republicans had the White House and 67 senators to go with their House majority.
Some responsible Republicans, of course, acknowledge the laws of physics without becoming pushovers. It’s crazy to think you can repeal Obamacare “while a guy named Obama is president,” says Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).
“In divided government, you don’t get everything you want,” says House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Even fourth-graders grasp that truism. But many Republicans, at the congressional and presidential levels, keep goading voters to believe carpets fly, leprechauns dance and political opponents cravenly surrender the deed to the farm – if you just try hard enough.
Charles Babington is a Washington writer and longtime political reporter.