A Party Of None

As Democrats examine what has happened to Republicans, we should be on the lookout for any warnings for ourselves.
03/30/2017 02:58 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2017
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The defeat last week of TrumpCare or RyanCare or health care repeal or whatever you want to call it proved something about the modern-day Republican Party that we’ve seen developing in recent years. Today’s Republican ideology is best described in the wise words of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski: “Man, they were nihilists, man.”

But as Democrats examine what has happened to the Republican Party, we should be on the lookout for any warnings for ourselves.

I’m old enough to remember when, in June 2009, Republican leadership in Congress first talked about a replacement (then called alternative) to President Obama’s health care agenda. Time magazine’s Jay-Newton Small described it this way:

House Republicans on Wednesday introduced their official alternative health-care-reform plan. Well, kind of. It’s not the official alternative, but it has the support of the leadership. And sure, some leaders may support other alternative bills out there, but this one also has the support of the top Republicans on the relevant committees. Oh, wait—some of them may also support other bills. But in any case, all this should remind you that the GOP does really stand for something.

Let’s leave aside for the moment that this plan was a four-page exercise in public relations that left out how many of the 47 million uninsured Americans would be covered, how it would be paid for or even how much it would cost.

They could have used that very same description for the new Republican health care plan just last Thursday, before the bill was pulled.

After the Affordable Care Act passed, we had seven years of Republicans marshaling more than 50 votes to “repeal” it. While that might have seemed like an agenda, it never really was. Senior Republican Congressman Joe Barton said this about why those repeated repeal efforts passed but it failed last week:

Sometimes you’re playing Fantasy Football, and sometimes you’re in the real game. We knew the president, if we could get a repeal bill to his desk, would almost certainly veto it. This time we knew if it got to the president’s desk it would be signed.

Mr. Barton’s right. For seven years, the Republican Party was playing fantasy football.

Now, confronted with the actual opportunity to repeal the Affordable Care Act, what happened? Many Republicans quietly admitted that they didn’t actually want to fully repeal the law. One senior GOP Congressman explained that repeal “will lead to loss of coverage and make insurance unaffordable for too many Americans.” Another simply remarked, “it is not as good as or better than what we currently have.”

But how did we end up here, with one of our great political parties lacking any coherent policy agenda? There are numerous reasons, but one of them is the damage that President Obama’s term did to the Republican ideology.

No one cares about your lack of a core mission when your mission can never be accomplished.

Let me be clear, I mean damage to the “Republican ideology,” not the Republican Party. The Republican Party is alive and well. Over the last eight years, Republicans have shellacked Democrats electorally in many ways, winning majorities in state legislatures and Congress and winning the White House despite losing the popular vote.

But the Republican ideology is something very different.

The Republican ideology has become about opposition more than position. The only reason the Republicans have needed to justify anything was because the other side was opposed to it. If President Obama had proposed the exact bill now known as TrumpCare—the American Health Care Act—every Republican would have reflexively rejected it.

President Obama’s eight years in office have a mixed track record politically, but they have done something major to the ideological landscape: unmasked the nihilism of the Republican ideology. Republican Congressman Tom Rooney of Florida recently admitted it to the Atlantic’s Russell Berman:

I’ve been in this job eight years, and I’m wracking my brain to think of one thing our party has done that’s been something positive, that’s been something other than stopping something else from happening.

For seven of those years, the Republican approach survived because the lack of a core was never relevant. No one cares about your lack of a core mission when your mission can never be accomplished. Now, however, Republicans are in control. The Republican Party isn’t just the dog that caught the car; it’s the dog that ended up driving the car.

But in this tale of a hollowed-out Republican ideology, Democrats should see both opportunity and a warning. The opportunity is obvious; the warning is harder to see.

As it stands today, there are fissures and splinters within the Democratic Party—and they’re important. There are battles about approach. Do we filibuster or do we not? Do we take lobbyist money or don’t we? Who do we want to chair the DNC? And, while there are some policy differences—as there always should be in a big tent—the core progressive commitments to equality, fairness, and opportunity are unifying our party today.

At the same time, the Democratic Party is united and even more energized by its opposition to Trump. It’s an animosity that he has rightly earned. But we cannot let ourselves become consumed only by that opposition. We must continue to be guided by our principles; otherwise, we leave ourselves vulnerable to becoming a party about nothing, just like the Republicans. If we value opposition more than position and abandon the core principles that unite us in our justified opposition to Trump, we’ll be right where they are in a few years.

And as we look toward reclaiming the White House, we have to remember that parties that are ideologically vapid—even if they’re politically strong—are vulnerable to hostile takeover by high-profile celebrities whose only real agenda is narcissism. If you doubt it can happen to us, just ask the GOP.

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