The GOP Leadership's Dubious Achievement: Donald Trump

The spectacular rise of Donald Trump as leading presidential candidate should at last force Republicans in Washington to face the chronic ineffectiveness of their party: rank and file Republicans are turning to the Donald because he, unlike the party establishment, seems energetic, articulate, and determined to get something done. They have so long despaired of a party leadership that is inarticulate, somnolent, and inept that they are not deterred by the fact that Trump is dangerously unpredictable. The  problem is not an insufficiently conservative party, as some conservatives think; a two-party system will always have a broad spectrum of viewpoints in each, and the mix in the Republican Party is about what one would expect at any given time. Conservatives who make this complaint are only narrowing support for the move to make a much-needed change in the leadership, and giving bungling Republican leaders an alibi for their failure.

The party¹s problem is not that it is led in the wrong direction, but that it is barely led at all. And that¹s because of a persistent Republican tendency to pick leaders by seniority, not leadership ability. When a leadership post is vacant, Republicans don¹t ask: who can advocate most persuasively for the party, who would be the best tactician and strategist, who could best forge a consensus among the party¹s disparate elements. They ask only: whose turn is next? And that condemns them to incompetent leaders like Denny Hastert, Bob Dole, or John Boehner -- people so lacking in eloquence, energy and foresight that it would never have occurred to anyone to think of them had the right questions been asked.

The aimless drift of the Republican Party has been evident for a long time. It was particularly noticeable in the runup to the 2014 election, when Democratic pollster Pat Caddell commented again and again on the failure of Republicans to grasp obvious opportunities, and a whole Fox news panel agreed that nobody was articulating the case for Republicans. A Wall Street Journal editorial called the house GOP of that time a “dysfunctional majority.”

But none of that made the slightest impact on the Republican establishment: the passive leadership continued. The depth of the leaders’ complacency became apparent after Eric Cantor¹s primary defeat in 2014. The defeat of the House majority leader was an obvious rebuke to the leadership, and a post-election poll left no doubt about the reason for it: a crushing 67 to 26 disapproval of the party establishment. But even in face of this reprimand, it was business as usual for the House leaders. They simply arranged the promotion of Kevin McCarthy, the next ranking member of the leadership team. It was his turn next. And so here we are again, a year later, with a poll showing John Boehner¹s national favorability rating at 23% positive, 54% negative, Mitch McConnell also underwater by 22-41, and explicitly anti-establishment candidates taking up to two thirds of Republican primary votes in the latest polls.

There has never been a more favorable time for Republican leaders to spell out to the nation how GOP policies would have avoided six years of a stubbornly sluggish economy, horrendous black youth unemployment, a scary increase in the national debt, the ObamaCare disaster, the collapse of border security, and the chaos throughout the world due to a naïve foreign policy. With such an easy case to make, it takes quite extraordinary incompetence to let the party¹s favorability ratings fall below even those of an unpopular president whose policies are opposed by solid majorities of the public.

The loyal opposition¹s job is to keep the government of the day honest. Obama lies repeatedly to advance his agenda: you can keep your doctor under ObamaCare; you can keep your insurance plan; Al Qaeda is on the run; the Iran deal will ensure that Iran can¹t get a bomb; the Iran deal has the most intrusive inspection regime ever; sanctions can snap back if Iran cheats. All unquestionably flagrant lies, yet Republican leaders have done nothing in response to them to keep government honest. The obvious Constitutional remedy is impeachment: Nixon was impeached for a single lie that was only about saving his own skin, but Obama uses lies as a routine part of his mode of governing, the latter much more worthy of impeachment than the former. Republican leaders certainly have a plausible reason for hesitating: the country would be damaged by impeachment of a historic first black president. But they have taken that as an excuse for doing nothing at all, forgetting that if you tolerate an abuse, you¹ll get more of it which is exactly what we are getting.

This is where real leaders shine: if the obvious way of protecting the integrity of government can¹t be used, a different one must be found. Perhaps a solemn statement from Speaker to nation about the damage to constitutional government. Perhaps a vote of censure in the house when the president tries to advance his agenda through deceit. Perhaps drawing up articles of impeachment, letting the country see how compelling they are, and then explaining why they won¹t be filed, unless the abuse continues. That would show restraint, but also the limits of restraint. However, the point here is not that any one of these suggestions is the right one, but only that if the obvious way isn¹t available, another must be sought. A price must be paid for government by lying.

The party¹s leaders offer a blanket excuse for their timidity: in any confrontation with Obama, the media will make sure that they get the blame. But this is why it is so important that leaders be articulate enough to make a compelling case for what they are doing. It may well be true that these particular Republican leaders would lose in any confrontation but that¹s because they lack the eloquence and resourcefulness that the task demands.

We see much the same ducking of responsibilities and challenges across the entire range of issues that the leadership ought to be tackling. Since the 2014 election, Obama has sharply increased executive actions that flout relevant laws, and federal agencies too are routinely overreaching. This lawless behavior is sometimes restrained by lawsuits brought by Judicial Watch, or by the states, but rarely by Republican leaders. Obama has run up a huge increase in the national debt and continues to press for new spending and entitlements, and Republican leaders are silent here too. The “power of the purse” that the constitution gives them seems no longer to exist, so paralyzed have they become by fear of confrontation. They have in effect rewritten the  Constitution. Can someone explain why no other president has ever been able to roll over every attempt to use it?           

A large part of leadership is understanding those you lead well enough to know what they will and won¹t accept. And so we easily recognize bad leaders by things such as: scheduling votes and being surprised by the outcome; making deals on behalf of a caucus which the caucus then rejects; announcing support for legislation which turns out to be opposed by party members. But those are common occurrences with Boehner and McConnell.

The cost to the Republican Party of keeping these inept leaders in place has been enormous, and Donald Trump¹s surge in the polls is just one part of that cost. When the party gives its major leadership post to someone as unimaginative and inarticulate as John Boehner, it makes itself vulnerable to a man who projects energy and a strong sense of purpose, even though he is so undisciplined that his candidacy could self-destruct at any time. Hillary Clinton¹s self-inflicted wounds are nothing compared to this perennial self-inflicted wound of the Republican Party.

The GOP is evidently giving much thought to the question how it should deal with its Trump problem. Whatever a complete strategy might look like, I have no doubt what the first step must be. Change throughout the leadership is needed -- House, Senate, party -- but at the very least, the party must equip itself with a commanding voice and strategic intelligence in its most important national office: the Speakership. Not at the next election, not at the next convenient moment immediately. Then watch the Trump problem begin to diminish.

John M Ellis is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Chairman of the California Association of Scholars