This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
How can elected leaders govern and address problems in a two-party system when one party has become completely unmoored? This is one of the central difficulties of the current moment, and we’ve barely begun to reckon with it. The natural desire after an election is for a political armistice in which the parties suspend hostilities and share responsibility for governing. And in a bygone era — say, the 1980s or 1990s — working with Republicans as good-faith partners was at least imaginable. As nice as this would be today, though, let’s remember who we’re talking about.
With Trump’s takeover of the Party, the GOP has piled overt racist nativism and rejection of democracy and science on top of the McConnell-style cynical obstructionism and ruthless power-seeking that came before. But even if we suppose congressional Republicans will start separating themselves from Trumpism’s worst tendencies, would their substantive policy views offer any common ground in key areas such as voting rights, economic stimulus or health care? Beyond cooperation on niche issues and strange-bedfellow legislative pet causes — valuable as that can be — does today’s Republican orthodoxy leave any room for meaningful bipartisanship?
In mulling this question lately, I’ve been reflecting on my own journey in politics and policy — particularly a pair of book projects I did in the run-up to the 2008 and 2016 elections. The first was a bipartisan consensus exercise by 20 foreign policy experts titled “Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide.” The second was much more partisan, with the title “I Call Bullshit – Four Fallacies That Keep Our Politics from Being Reality-Based.” For me the Obama era was bracketed by patient bridge-building at one end and an exasperated broadside at the other.
Unfortunately, the key factor that made the 2007 bipartisan initiative worthwhile is missing from the current political equation. By the end of the George W. Bush presidency, the invasion of Iraq and broader arrogance and unilateral foreign policy had been revealed as disasters. The loss of American international legitimacy and support was a real shock to the system. So while Democratic experts in our project all offered slight departures from traditional liberal approaches, our Republican counterparts came to the table chastened by the recent failures and seeking a reset.
Fast forward to Donald Trump’s nomination. When the #NeverTrump movement coalesced around a core of experienced national security hands, it effectively stripped the GOP of nearly all of its experts and left precious little foreign policy sobriety, humility, or practicality behind.
The myth of an all-powerful America was one of the four right wing fallacies I dissected in the 2016 “I Call Bullshit” book. The others were phantom fraudulent voters, the fever dream of laissez-faire health care and the right’s favorite heroes: private sector “job creators” (i.e. trickle-down supply-side economics). And if you were looking for subjects that test Republicans’ readiness to compromise, three prime areas would be voting rights, health care and demand-side stimulus to deal with the economic downturn and spike in poverty it has caused.
Right now the myth of voter fraud is disintegrating before our very eyes, exposing the GOP’s racist, disenfranchising, partisan game for what it is. The Trump campaign’s farcical legal challenges are deeply dangerous in the way they feed mistrust of the electoral process among their loyal base of voters. At the same time, the Trump-Giuliani Follies serve to clarify the emptiness and cynicism of the entire GOP “election integrity” agenda. The legal case literally boils down to a claim that there were too many Democratic votes. Instead of evidence of fraud or manipulation of vote tallies, the GOP baldly asserts supposed corruption in urban centers like Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee where large numbers of Black people live.
This raises a clear question for post-election bipartisan cooperation. Will Republicans bow to reality and help remove all the administrative obstacles to voting — like voter ID laws and voting roll purges — that were premised on the purported fraud threat?
On health care there is a similar question of whether Republicans lawmakers will belatedly reset their policy agenda to be more reality-based. In the decade since the Affordable Care Act became law, GOP leaders have: lambasted its reforms of our private insurance system as a government takeover; made wholesale repeal of the ACA their top legislative priority; embraced popular elements of Obamacare such as coverage of preexisting conditions; and offered proposals that get rid of those same elements. Coherence and consistency have not been their strong suits, to put it mildly.
For much of this period, of course, GOP health care policy has been long on repeal and short on replacement. Most comical have been President Trump’s endless promises of a “beautiful” health care plan that he is always just on the verge of unveiling. The core problem is that Republicans only ever had self-serving talking points on health care, rather than workable proposals. They never made a plausible case that medical treatment was just another consumer good that choosy buyers (aka patients) could compel suppliers to improve and supply more cheaply. They ignored the basic math of insurance risk pools—letting healthy people opt out and eliding the costs of covering those with significant medical issues. Meanwhile Republican proposals have shied away from one of the main objectives of Obamacare and other Democratic policy prescriptions: extending health coverage to the millions of this country’s uninsured.
As with other elements of the GOP platform, the party’s health care agenda is skewed toward the ‘haves’ rather than the ‘have-nots.’ They look out for the more fortunate among us, those lucky enough to have good health or good insurance. Again, the question regarding bipartisan cooperation is whether GOP leaders will get their heads out of the ideological clouds and come back down to earth.
In the third area, economic stimulus, we have a clear parallel with the beginning of the last Democratic presidency as well as the Republican response to the economic downturn this year. Both feature a party that has veered out of the mainstream. Neither gives grounds for much hope in bipartisanship.
The current presidential transition distinctly echoes late-2008, when disastrous economic stewardship also saddled Democrats with a deep recession and high unemployment. (In the future it’d be nice to break this cycle and skip the part where economic, military, or public health debacles prompt the electorate to turn to Democrats.) Within less than a month of taking office, President Obama signed a $787 billion stimulus package. The bill passed without a single Republican vote in the House and just three in the Senate. Three years later then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) gave the ideological argument for opposing fiscal stimulus and called on President Obama to admit:
“The failures of an economic agenda that centers on massive government spending and debt. He should then reach across the aisle for a plan that puts people and business at the forefront of any effort to lift the economy … The only way we can bring about a stable, long-term recovery is by shifting the center of gravity away from Washington and toward those who actually create jobs.”
Contrary to McConnell’s denigration of the federal government, stimulative spending and debt are crucial for depressed economies. The government’s role in a recession is to make up for the private sector’s lack of demand for goods and services. The very nature of the crisis is that consumers and businesses cannot afford to buy anything — a situation that will only get worse if the government stands back and fails to act, as Herbert Hoover saw in the early 1930s. You run deficits during downturns due to the combination of low revenue and increased social safety net spending, and bring everything back to fiscal balance during boom times.
Looking a bit closer at GOP behavior on this issue, it’s a picture of heterodoxy rather than ideological principle. For instance while negotiations over a COVID relief bill have deadlocked, with McConnell back in the role of skeptic, spending packages were approved earlier in the year with the clear purpose of putting money in peoples’ hands and stimulating the economy. Does this mean at least some Republicans have come around to seeing a role for government? Plus, congressional Republicans were enacting budgets, tax cuts and redistribution of wealth upward that exploded the federal deficit back before the pandemic when the economy was healthy. Maybe they agree with former Vice President Dick Cheney’s famous dictum that deficits don’t matter. The other possibility, of course, is that fiscal prudence only matters as a cudgel to use against Democrats — that only Democrats’ deficit spending matters. But whether the explanation is partisan bad faith, intra-party divisions, or incoherence, it doesn’t bode well for Republican cooperation on economic help for Americans who are hurting.
From talking to fellow Wisconsinites during the campaign, I know that many of them want political leaders to work things out so that everyone else doesn’t have to worry about it. And if our system worked the way it is supposed to, the center-right and center-left parties would find solutions that strike a balance between their approaches. Unfortunately, the United States no longer has two moderate parties. Instead we have a center-left party and an extreme-right party completely disconnected from the political center. Refreshing as it would be for all of our leaders to come together after 2020, it takes two to bipartisan, and the GOP has for many years been utterly bereft of workable ideas to serve as a basis for compromise.
David Shorr is a longtime contributor to the Café. After several decades in the foreign policy community, he embarked on a second career as an evaluation consultant specializing in policy advocacy and local politician based in Stevens Point, WI.