The Republican Party has become an unstable and potentially unsustainable coalition. The danger has been apparent from the day President Trump began his quest for the White House. Roy Moore’s victory in the Alabama Republican primary provided the exclamation point.
Moore’s victory was telling for what it showed: that the Trump message has more power at the grass-roots than the president himself. Trump was persuaded to embrace Sen. Luther Strange in the GOP runoff against Moore. But it was the anti-Washington, anti-establishment message of the twice-removed state Supreme Court justice that prevailed Tuesday.
That this is a period of turmoil and flux in American politics states the obvious. Tribal voting has become the norm, with the country divided into red and blue camps. Come December in Alabama, when the general election between Moore and Democrat Doug Jones is contested, those firmly established patterns again could determine the outcome. In deeply red Alabama, Republicans will expect to win, even with an establishment-rattling, ultraconservative candidate like Moore.
Yet the red-blue alliances and the left-right differences are no longer sufficient to explain the tensions and divisions that mark the politics of the Trump era. They still shape political debates and policy differences; they still help predict general-election voting patterns. But alone, they do not provide the fuller framework for such an unusual time. Neither party is offering answers.
For establishment Republicans in Washington, Tuesday was perhaps the worst day among many bad days. It was a trifecta of disappointment and rejection. The failure of the party that controls so many levers of power to govern effectively and the consequences of that inaction rarely have been on such public display.
The day started with the Senate leadership’s capitulation on health care. Once again, Republicans could not muster the votes to pass legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act. This represented another embarrassment for the party leadership, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose inability to deliver has made him a repeated target for presidential criticism.
There then was the announcement by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that he plans to retire at the end of his term in 2018. This was not just another blow to the establishment. His decision holds out the prospect that Tennessee’s long tradition of sending to Washington governing Republicans in the mold of former Republican leader Howard Baker could be on the wane.
Finally, on Tuesday night, there was Moore’s victory, though it was hardly a surprise. Polling in the weeks before the balloting showed “Big Luther” Strange, the president’s designated candidate but more importantly the candidate fully embraced by the McConnell-led GOP establishment, trailing consistently. Still, the blow was felt when the votes were counted.
All the issues that came together Tuesday were visible well ahead of this week — discernible but not always fully appreciated or accepted. Over the past two years, Republicans held out hope that they could finesse the growing contradictions of their coalition. They will have to recalibrate those assumptions.
On health care, the futility of trying to fulfill a pledge to repeal the ACA has been evident almost from the day Trump was sworn in. After seven years of empty promise and show votes without consequence, Republicans discovered that they have neither a true consensus on the policy nor the political muscle to overcome that weakness.
The Corker decision to quit the Senate at the end of next year, despite being chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a time of great danger in the world and the need for politicians with steady hands and sound judgment, speaks to the frustrations of many politicians in Washington. Corker’s decision yells out: It’s a lousy time to be in Congress.
Many lawmakers do want to get something done. But that isn’t easy in today’s polarized political climate. It has become particularly problematic for majority Republicans whose membership includes many lawmakers whose principal goal is to stop action in Washington, not facilitate action.
The larger challenge for Republicans is trying to find a way to govern in the midst of a civil war. The party establishment proved powerless in its efforts to deny Trump the GOP nomination last year, then assumed he could not be elected, then tried to make peace with the fact that he had won. GOP leaders nonetheless held out hope that Trump would be a somewhat malleable president, that he would follow their lead on policy and use the unique megaphone that he has developed to advance the cause.
But that assumption turned out to be incorrect for at least two reasons. First, that Trump’s agenda was their agenda, that he was as interested in party success as in personal success. Second, that the divisions that had immobilized congressional Republicans long before Trump became a candidate would somehow disappear if the party controlled the White House. They didn’t.
In reality, the president’s independence and his efforts to prove to his voters that he is trying to fulfill his promises have added to the problems congressional leaders have run into this year. Trump’s most loyal voters are as likely to see McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) as feckless and not doing enough to help the president as they are to dislike House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The upshot of Trump’s frustrations at not getting his way and the congressional leadership’s failure to deliver anything truly meaningful is that the rallying cry to “drain the swamp” has been given as much resonance today with insurgent conservatives as it had during the campaign. Roy Moore proved that in Alabama.
Trump and the establishment made an uneasy pact during the election because they had no choice. That alliance was symbolized by the first two appointments the president-elect made to his White House staff: Reince Priebus, the former Republican National Committee chair, as chief of staff, and Stephen K. Bannon, the anti-establishment leader of Breitbart News, as chief strategist. But Trump’s coalition is not the Republican coalition and never has been.
Today both Priebus and Bannon are gone from the White House, let go in what was never-ending personnel battles in which they were sometimes allies and sometimes opponents. But the constituencies they represented and still represent are caught up in a monumental conflict over the future of the Republican Party. Bannon’s appearance on behalf of Moore signaled this war is not ending.
The GOP today is an awkward combination of establishment Republicans who have embraced the president out of what they consider necessity; grass-roots citizens only partially attached to the Republican Party and for whom Trump’s populist, “America first,” anti-Washington rhetoric strikes a chord; and “Never Trump” Republicans who formed an important part of the party before Trump came on the scene and who are looking for a home and don’t know what to do.
This is a conflict with no certain outcome and no clear timeline. It reflects instability across the political spectrum and the shifting sensibilities of many voters. Above all, it reflects politics in the age of Trump and all that has come to mean.