This is about the bigger picture, not about short-term, beltway battles and shutdowns that may or may not be on the minds of Americans when they go to the polls in 2020 – although I don’t imagine the passage of time will sweeten the memory for Americans who worked weeks without paychecks.
This is about the future of the GOP platform, that grand-old-promise to shrink government, reduce inefficiencies, cut taxes, and preserve the American dream. Amid the hopeless xenophobia from immigration hard-liners, the fire hose of lies from the White House, and the GOP’s muddled response to Trump’s ever-blooming Russia scandal – the shrug heard round the world – it’s hard to remember what the party stood for before Donald Trump.
How long, Republicans?
How many times have we asked this since 2015 – when a thin-skinned, demagogue with a campaign inspired by belligerent Internet message boards – stormed the Republican ranks and bullied and belittled his way to the party’s presidential nomination and, eventually, the White House itself?
And for that matter, we should put the question to North Carolina senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, self-styled moderates in the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate who toe the Trump line to preserve the president’s populist base.
What would it take, we asked, when Trump’s administration separated and caged immigrant children at the border, when it sought to open a backdoor channel to the Kremlin, when it muzzled the environmental scientists at the EPA, and when it imposed a blanket ban on visitors from Muslim-majority countries, to name a marginal fraction of the president’s calamities?
If you’re looking for the Rubicon, we crossed it miles back.
At what point, precisely, do Tillis, Burr and Sen. Mitch McConnell – perhaps the country’s most powerful Republican lawmaker, so mythically prized for his shrewd leadership – decide that a divisive president roped in by impeachment talk and a post-presidential prison sentence should not set the agenda for his political party?
“People may say many things about Mitch McConnell,” Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat and presidential hopeful, said last week, as the shutdown churned into its fourth week. “[But] when he takes the first step, it’s because he knows the 10th step.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
It’s time to ask Republicans to identify that 10th step. Since it seems imminently unlikely that the president receives his border wall – a notion more popular with ideologues and Fox News focus groups than border agents anyway – we have to locate the goalposts.
When do we discard McConnell’s canny image, as the party’s disastrous shutdown gambit – to ride Trump’s border wall fixation like a drunken party-goer on a mechanical bull – cratered the president’s poll numbers?
The buffoonish brouhaha wounded Congressional Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi too, but as the showdown ground to its apotheosis last week, more and more Americans blamed Trump.
Should we think twice about McConnell’s sly ways when the shutdown’s purposeless partisan mummery spurred bristling denunciations from military chiefs like U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Karl Schultz, whose “Coasties” –thousands of which serve in North Carolina – were forced to rush food pantries in lieu of their paychecks?
And crafting a crisis at the border won’t mask the economic ills of a federal government shutdown, no matter the conservative inclination to dismiss the government’s role in the economy.
Perhaps there’s a presidential approval rating, somewhere around 35 percent or so, where leaders like Tillis, Burr and McConnell would leap, like fleas from a bathing dog. Or perhaps not, as long as the president’s approval among Republicans remains somewhere around 80 percent, while independents and Democrats turn away.
There’s a noxious arithmetic to all of this, cached away in the GOP’s D.C. caucus, that matters precious little to the families Adm. Schultz sent up last week and those who would be hurt should the president and McConnell play budget “chicken” again in three weeks.
Of course, House Democrats play a role in the ongoing ruckus, but it’s Senate Republicans who will be tasked with ultimately deciding when to cut bait on Trump’s games.
Are we somewhere near the 10th step, Sen. McConnell, Sen. Tillis, Sen. Burr? How long, Republicans?
Without an answer soon, Americans may make the decision for them.