With the Hindenburg-like implosion of the GOP health care legislation this week, it’s become fashionable in Washington to say that Republicans just don’t know how to govern anymore.
While President Obama was in office, Republicans proved to be a ruthlessly capable opposition party, holding hostage the once-routine debt ceiling negotiations, forcing a partial government shutdown in 2013, and undermining Obamacare, even though repeal was impossible. That was largely due to the dogged determination of then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Now the GOP now holds the White House, as well as majorities in Congress and even on the U.S. Supreme Court. And yet the party has been fecklessly unable to win its longstanding agenda, including killing Obamacare, enacting sweeping tax cuts for the rich, and chopping entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid. President Trump’s dark populist priorities of a “big, beautiful” wall with Mexico and a border tax are also rotting on the vine.
The lore of McConnell being the “dark lord” of the Senate has definitely taken a hit. So has Trump’s reputation as the consummate dealmaker, as his business experience hasn’t translated at all to the world of D.C. By all accounts, the president has been supremely bored by the health care process and left negotiations up to congressional leaders, with his only goal to sign something — anything — so as to declare victory and stick it to Obama.
Most conservative triumphs this year have come in the form of Trump’s executive orders rolling back environmental protections and fiscal regulations (i.e. the sort of imperial presidency actions for which Republicans eviscerated Obama).
We’re only six months into Trump’s term, so there’s still time to rack up wins. But we’re also less than six months away from 2018, and congressional leaders are typically loath to ram unpopular bills through during election years when voters pay more attention.
And there’s another bright red roadblock. The ever-widening Russia scandal that’s engulfing Trump, his family and top campaign aides is threatening to derail what conservatives believed was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shrink the size and scope of government and rewrite the tax code.
While Republican voters may be incensed by FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and insist it’s a “nothingburger,” smarter politicians and strategists are dissolving into night terrors with each new revelation.
This is all “very bad” and “Sad!” as our president might tweet. But I’m not sure that the conventional wisdom that the Republican Party only excels as an obstructionist force is correct.
It’s easy to imagine a more competent and less tainted GOP president — say, Marco Rubio, John Kasich or even prickly Ted Cruz — cajoling members of Congress with far more success. It would still be difficult to pass a complete repeal of Obamacare, but a less ambitious conservative health bill — marshalled by a Republican president not subject to social media war whims or Vladimir Putin’s charms — likely could glide through Capitol Hill.
While this is a hypothetical scenario, we do have some real-world examples of Republican success at the state level. Many states have enjoyed complete GOP control this decade, including Wisconsin, Ohio and, of course, Michigan. And Republicans have been able to achieve some stunning conservative victories.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was no true-blue conservative’s first choice. He’s occasionally bucked his party on major issues, like championing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and several minor ones, like vetoing the Right to Life license plate (which the savvy lobbying group will just turn into a fundraising opportunity and an ‘18 candidate litmus test).
But Snyder has presided over a right-wing agenda that probably makes former Gov. John Engler pickle with envy. From Right to Work to huge business tax cuts to cuts to welfare and teacher pensions, Michigan has taken a hard right-hand turn — which won’t be undone, even if Democrats recapture the governor’s mansion next year.
That’s not to say that Snyder and more conservative legislative leaders have always had the same priorities or styles. The governor has privately and publicly chafed with many of them.
One of the primary issues is that Snyder, a former CEO, would like legislators to function more as his employees than a co-equal branch of government. But in the era of term limit-fueled inexperience and hyperpartisanship, there have been few big flare-ups.
You would expect this dynamic with Trump and Congress, but the president has curiously ceded most of his agenda to McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.).
So far, however, there’s one clear parallel between Michigan and Washington. Each legislative branch has been willing to give the executive branch a pass — and even play interference — during a major scandal.
Snyder and his team escaped long, ruinous legislative hearings over the Flint water crisis, as Republicans had no appetite for flagellating one of their own. And thus far, Trump has benefited from lax congressional oversight of his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, and Ryan and McConnell have refused to engage much with the media on the firestorm.
For now, Republicans at both the state and national level seem resigned to the fact that they’re all playing on the same team, whether they like it or not. Hope for enacting their right-wing agenda springs eternal.
We’ll see if it lasts.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.