The Corner

Politics & Policy

Last Night’s Debate Underlines Why Congress Is a Problem for the ‘Establishment’ Republicans

One of the major themes of this primary season has been Republican voters angry at their own party in Congress, anger that is both more jarring and more unforgiving in a party whose top-to-bottom strength in Congress and state capitols is the best it has been since the 1920s. At the core of that anger is a sense that the Capitol Hill GOP never seems to get around to doing the things it promises the grassroots (repeal or defund Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood, stop the Iran deal, cut federal spending, block Obama’s immigration executive orders, etc.) even with significant majorities in both Houses of Congress. Meanwhile, voters see Republicans on the Hill trying time and again to cut deals with Democrats to serve the interests of the donor and lobbyist classes, like saving the Export-Import Bank or repealing the medical-device tax. Why, voters want to know, does Obama keep winning? Why don’t the people we elected deliver what they promised, or at least leave some blood on the floor trying?

There are really five distinct approaches to that anger. First, we have Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, both of whom tend to minimize the problem as a routine matter of just getting a new sheriff in town. Here is Christie last night, after being asked about reaching across the aisle:

There is no reason why you can’t stand for principles, go and fight for them and be able also, to have to get things done in government.

You know, what people are frustrated about in Washington, D.C., and I know the folks out there tonight are incredibly frustrated because what they see is a government that doesn’t work for them. You know, for the 45-year-old construction worker out there, who is having a hard time making things meet.

He’s lost $4,000 in the last seven years in his income because of this administration. He doesn’t want to hear the talk about politics, Megyn, and who is establishment and who is grassroots. And who’s compromised and who is principled. What he wants is something to get done.

And that’s the difference between being a governor and having done that for the last six years in New Jersey and being someone who has never had to be responsible for any of those decisions. Barack Obama was never responsible for those decisions.

Hillary Clinton has never been responsible for those kind of decisions where they were held accountable. I’ve been held accountable for six years as the governor of New Jersey and with a Democratic legislature, I’ve gotten conservative things done.

This is more or less the standard answer governors give when running, but the fact that the nine governors in the race have done so poorly as a group – despite several of them having far greater records of conservative accomplishment than the Republican Congress – suggests that voters aren’t buying it and have spread their fury to the system as a whole. Jeb, after admitting the obvious – that his family makes him part of any definition of “the establishment” – likewise brushed away the question with an appeal to his governing record:

This election is not about our pedigree, this is an election about people that are really hurting. We need a leader that will fix things and have a proven record to do it. And we need someone who will take on Hillary Clinton in November. Someone who has a proven record, who has been tested, who is totally transparent.

The second approach, taken by John Kasich, also cites his record as a governor and congressman. Kasich, however, flips the script in a way that may help him with New Hampshire independents, but is likely to exacerbate his problems with voters who already think Beltway Republicans are ceding too much ground:

I had a national reporter say, you know, there’s three lanes. There’s the establishment lane, the anti- establishment lane, and then there’s the Kasich lane.

And the reason is, is that I’ve been a reformer all of my career, fighting to reform welfare, fighting to reform the Pentagon, also being in a position to balance the budget, because that is very, very hard to do. . . . You know, the situation is this. We cannot fix things in this country — the Social Security, the border, balancing the budget, getting wages to grow faster — unless we lead as conservatives, but we also invite people in from the other party. We have to come together as a country. And we have to stop all the divisions.

And, you know, that’s been my message in New Hampshire. And having been in New Hampshire and here in Iowa, but in New Hampshire, I just received the support of seven out of eight of the newspapers in that state because they see positive, they see unity, they see coming together, and they see a record of change and a record of accomplishment.

Whereas Bush declines to diagnose the problem and Christie diagnoses it as simply the lack of a responsible leader in the Oval Office, Kasich points fingers at conservatives for too much “division” – exactly the opposite of what angry conservative voters believe.

The far opposite pole is Ted Cruz. Cruz’s jeremiads against the “Washington cartel” are premised on the idea that GOP leadership isn’t just failing to live up to its promises but is actively working against them — that the party has become a corrupt racket that fleeces its voters with no intention of delivering. The harder question for Cruz is how he believes he will be able to change this, but it’s a compellingly simple message.

For much of the primary season, there’s been an assumption that Donald Trump was talking about the same things as Cruz, and certainly he is tapping into some of the same anger, especially on immigration. Both see the system in D.C. as fundamentally a racket, and in Trump’s case a racket in which the two parties are essentially indistinguishable. But to see Trump and Cruz as the same is misleading, because their diagnoses are actually diametrically opposed: While Cruz is arguing that the GOP should live up to its principles, the Trump message at its core is that the principles need to go, too – that Republicans aren’t just failing to deliver on their promises, but are promising the wrong things. If you read efforts to make sense of Trumpism as something beyond the momentary urges and self-interest of Trump, that comes through loud and clear. So we get Tucker Carlson:

It turns out the GOP wasn’t simply out of touch with its voters; the party had no idea who its voters were or what they believed. For decades, party leaders and intellectuals imagined that most Republicans were broadly libertarian on economics and basically neoconservative on foreign policy. That may sound absurd now, after Trump has attacked nearly the entire Republican catechism (he savaged the Iraq War and hedge fund managers in the same debate) and been greatly rewarded for it, but that was the assumption the GOP brain trust operated under. They had no way of knowing otherwise. The only Republicans they talked to read the Wall Street Journal too.

On immigration policy, party elders were caught completely by surprise. Even canny operators like Ted Cruz didn’t appreciate the depth of voter anger on the subject. And why would they? If you live in an affluent ZIP code, it’s hard to see a downside to mass low-wage immigration. Your kids don’t go to public school. You don’t take the bus or use the emergency room for health care. No immigrant is competing for your job. (The day Hondurans start getting hired as green energy lobbyists is the day my neighbors become nativists.) Plus, you get cheap servants, and get to feel welcoming and virtuous while paying them less per hour than your kids make at a summer job on Nantucket. It’s all good.

Or Michael Brendan Dougherty:

I’ve been waiting for a Republican who would say, bluntly, the Iraq War was a disaster. I’ve been waiting for a Republican candidate to say that the trade deals and legal frameworks that drive globalism have been bad deals for America’s workers. I’ve been waiting for a candidate who would question the elite consensus on mass immigration, not tweak it. And I’ve been waiting for a candidate to deliver a shock to the conservative movement and the Republican Party, something that would force them to reconnect to the actual material interests of their voters, to make them realize that the market was made for man, and not man for the market.

So where does that leave Marco Rubio? Somewhere in the middle, trying to hold the ship together. Given his tea-party pedigree as Florida house speaker and his conservative voting record in the Senate and his need to appeal to establishment-friendly voter groups (including those voters I call “Republican Regulars”), Rubio has been hesitant to address the question directly, ducking a Chris Wallace question about how he could unite the party with an answer that mostly just asserted his aim to win the general election:

This campaign is about the greatest country in the world and a president who has systematically destroyed many of the things that made America special.

You see, we usually elect presidents in America that want to change the things that are wrong in America. Barack Obama wants to change America. Barack Obama wants America to be more like the rest of the world. We don’t want to be like the rest of the world. We want to be the United States of America.

That is why Hillary Clinton cannot win this election. Hillary Clinton this week said Barack Obama would make a great Supreme Court justice. The guy who systematically and habitually violates the constitution on the Supreme Court? I don’t think so. If I’m our nominee, I will unite this party and we’ll defeat Hillary Clinton and we will turn this country around once and for all, after seven years of the disaster that is Barack Obama.

While Rubio was never hesitant to blast Charlie Crist’s sincerity (even last night he called Crist “the liberal governor of Florida, who claimed he was a Republican”), he has generally avoided Cruz’s argument that the congressional GOP is acting in bad faith. If there’s an implicit diagnosis in Rubio’s view of Congress, it seems to be more that leadership has failed due to a combination of lack of courage and lack of party unity – the latter somewhat similar to Paul Ryan’s efforts to decentralize and get buy-in from more of the factions in the House GOP, something Rubio himself did as Florida house speaker. As for courage, the Rubio “electability” message — with its glossy pitches to younger and more ethnically diverse voters — is geared to restore the party’s confidence that it not only can win a general election again but can build a coalition that isn’t in constant, imminent danger of demographic apocalypse. A party confident in its ability to win will be more confident in its willingness to govern. (Rubio has also called for a constitutional convention to make structural reforms, including terms limits and a balanced budget amendment, but that seems unlikely to come to pass).

But if Rubio finds himself on a smaller stage with Cruz and Trump after New Hampshire, he will probably be pressed to make a more explicit case for how he intends to get the Ryan-McConnell Congress to deliver the things voters keep getting promised, why he thinks they haven’t done so, and what he realistically promises to deliver.


The Latest