The state of the Republican Party is summed up by a quote from the late cartoonist Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
At both the presidential-campaign and congressional levels, the problems are self-induced. The party fostered unrealistic expectations, and the failure to meet them emboldened a nihilistic streak in a core of House Republicans and with the likes of Donald Trump. There is little agenda, lots of lashing out.
This is what led some Republicans in the House, encouraged by presidential candidates, to threaten to shut down the government if funding for Planned Parenthood wasn’t ended. A USA Today survey showed that almost two-thirds of Americans favor federal support for the organization, which provides health care services for women. A small percentage of Planned Parenthood’s budget goes to abortions, and that fraction isn’t covered by the federal funds. In a list of a dozen organizations and political figures in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Planned Parenthood was viewed the most favorably.
A shutdown was avoided last week, but there already are threats to try again in December.
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Much of the bluster of this minority can be traced to the Republicans’ successes in the 2010 and 2014 non-presidential elections. These victories largely were based on running against the then-unpopular President Barack Obama and overpromising.
At the federal level, the battle cry was: Elect Republicans and we'll defund the Affordable Care Act, slash federal spending, reform the wretched tax system and lower taxes, and restrain Obama. The party won both houses of Congress but hasn’t been able to deliver on politically unrealistic commitments.
That has alienated the rank and file. A recent Bloomberg Politics poll showed that Republicans, more than two-to-one, have an unfavorable view of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. One-third have negative views about their own party.
Reflecting these views, hard-core right-wing members in the House, many elected in those last two off-year elections, forced Boehner to resign.
The favorite to replace him is Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, though Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah said Sunday that he would seek the post, too. McCarthy offers a more cheerful face than Boehner and is an exceptionally able political operative. But whoever takes job will face the same daunting demands – no compromises with the Democrats or the White House. The main agenda of congressional Republicans is to oppose anything Obama is for, with the exception of international trade deals.
The best hope is that Boehner, who now can afford to ignore the hard right, will use the next four weeks to forge a deal on extending the debt ceiling and a multiyear budget plan, leaving less lethal matters for his successor to handle. Boehner is a skillful legislator, but this may be a reach.
At the presidential level, the same forces are on display with the three front-runners, Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, who, combined, have less governing or political experience than any president of the past century.
Waiting in the wings is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who arouses grass-roots conservatives with attacks against Republican congressional leaders.
Some Republicans acknowledge these problems, but insist the party is in good shape. They point out that, in addition to both Houses of Congress, they hold 31 of the 50 governorships and that in most of these states, they also control the legislature. But not much of this success had to do with any Republican initiatives; it was more linked to the party’s ability to ride the anti-Obama wave.
“We look great on paper, but most of our gains have been because we weren’t the Democrats,” says former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who was the Republicans’ leading political strategist in Congress.
Moreover, as the Democrats learned a generation ago, after years of controlling everything but the presidency, agenda-setting and power flows from the White House.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.