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The Republican Disagreement About What Governing Means


“They don’t give a damn about governing.” That’s the headline takeaway from the New York Times’s Jackie Calmes’ academic paper for Harvard, which has all the content you would expect from a source for whom “epistemic closure” is a phrase they use more often than “is this gluten free?”

Does it feature an underlying belief that the biggest problem facing the country is modern conservative intransigence? Of course. Does it claim the Republican Party can’t win elections because of their radical agenda even as they hold a majority of states and the largest majority in Congress in almost a century? Why yes. Does it include a lot of anonymous quotes and non-anonymous quotes from people like John Feehery about why the Tea Party is a gigantic problem? Duh. Does it lament the passing of respectable conservatives like William F. Buckley, while ignoring the fact that he was absolutely vilified by the same liberal elite that now uses him to attack the right? You betcha. Does it attack conservative views on immigration and other policies while pretending that President Obama’s executive amnesty and other extreme and unlawful powergrabs are simply the normal approach of constitutional governance? Lulz.

Well, what else would you expect from a piece with a chapter heading of “Listeners, Clicks, Dollars…and Blood”? Which, of course, does happen to be the list of our primary aims at The Federalist, but that’s just coincidence.

The sad thing isn’t that this paper exists, or that it’s so mediocre in its analysis. The sad thing is the percentage of the Senate Republican Caucus that would probably agree with most if not all of it, particularly when it comes to its definition of “governing”.

The idea that the Senate Republicans have accepted is that “governing” equates to passing new policies, and that blocking bad policies is some form of anarchic knownothingism. If you accept the idea that the ability to govern is all about passing legislation and winning elections, no matter what that legislation includes or who those elections elect, then the approach you use is not actually aligned with the priorities of the conservative base, which holds the view that blocking bad policies is actually more important than making new policy.

This definitional problem creates a serious degree of cognitive dissonance for grassroots conservatives when they hear, for instance, that someone like Ted Cruz has no legislative accomplishments. From their perspective, legislative accomplishments are all about blocking bad policy, fighting against bad legislation, and defunding bad programs – steps which generally make one a royal pain in the ass for the Washington elite who want the business of politics to work as it usually does: prioritizing their priorities.

This leads us to the current situation, where the Senate Republican Conference gives every indication of being completely out of touch with its base over the issue of Planned Parenthood. Conversations with members reveal that they largely believe they have addressed the issue with their vote last week, and that additional hearings and investigations will be sufficient to mollify those who are pushing for defunding. There are a disturbing number of Senators and staffers who believe they’re heading home for a recess where people will stand up at town halls and say, “Wait, Senator, you’re telling me you passed Trade Promotion Authority, and reauthorized No Child Left Behind, and passed the longest highway bill in ten years? Wow, I am totally satisfied and not thinking at all about defunding Planned Parenthood now.”

Already Senate Republican leaders are trying to stave off a funding fight by claiming their hands are tied (just as they do with other “mandatory” forms of spending):

He suggested that efforts to defund the group might not happen until November, when Republicans engage in talks with President Obama and Democrats over legislation that would keep the government funded for the remainder of the fiscal year. But the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30, a matter of days after the Senate and House return from the August recess.

At that point, Cornyn said, the Senate is likely to take up a short-term funding measure, and it may not include any language to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, he said, although he added, “It’s premature to say,” what the short-term spending measure will include.

But he pledged that no matter what, there would no threat of the government running out of money thanks to a congressional impasse over spending.

“We are not going to go there,” Cornyn said. “There will be no government shutdown. We were elected as a majority to govern, not to shut down the government.”

As A-B-C steps go, this is Underpants Gnome madness. As I understand it, the Senate Republican plan is:

A. Hold hearings and investigations to prove that Planned Parenthood is absolutely definitely harvesting organs and trading them for cash.
B. Vote to fund Planned Parenthood.
C. Profit!

That’s what happens when you have a Democratic base and leadership that is unified when it comes to priorities – in this case, the maximal defense of abortion funding – and a Republican base and leadership that is not unified, but divided. The Republican base favors life, and is shocked by what they have seen and cannot unsee. They cannot believe that taxpayer funding is going to an entity which harvests baby parts for cash. Capitol Hill Republicans favor governance – their priority is avoiding government shutdown and passing legislation which the president will sign. One side must give way.

Senate Republicans may think they are governing. But actually, they are just making it easier for the other side while eliminating the reasons people have for voting for them. They voted for you to be a hedge against President Obama and Harry Reid, not their quiet validator. Edmund Burke’s conviction that leaders ought to “resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong” is supposed to be an exception, not a rule.

When the GOP inevitably passes the total omnibus cave, a month or so before presidential voting begins – featuring caves not just on Planned Parenthood funding but on the debt limit, highways, tax extenders, spending caps, and more – it will be very interesting to see what it does to the presidential race. What should worry Capitol Hill Republicans is that their governing agenda could significantly undermine the kind of reasonable, moderate, business as usual candidate the Republican elite favor in this cycle. If this happens, it may prompt the base to shift to a candidate who offers more to them than a promise of normalcy. It may prompt them to say: “Governing – you keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means.”