Broken, venal, dysfunctional: The GOP clown show, Hillary's challenge, and our dangerously frozen democracy

Mitch can't fix the Senate. Boehner can't control his caucus. GOP's a disaster; Democrats have no soul. Now what?

Published March 8, 2015 11:00AM (EDT)


“We ought to start with the view that maybe there are some things we can agree on to make progress in this country… the Senate needs to be fixed… We’re going back to work and actually pass legislation... “
--Sen. Mitch McConnell, Nov. 5, 2014 

On the day after the biggest win of his life, Mitch McConnell was feeling the love. Once he called hounding President Obama out of office his primary duty as a public servant. But rhapsodizing about common ground and fixing Congress, he sounded almost Obamaesque. Looking back at those words -- and at a Congress that remains as venal and broken as it ever was -- one can’t help but wonder: Did he mean it?

He probably did. Every politician has heard his inner Lincoln beseech him to bind up the nation’s wounds. Even if McConnell were deaf to the plea, the same self-interest that led him to a life of obstruction now requires him to prove he can do what he fought to keep Obama from doing: Make the damn place work. He figured the bar would be easy to step over, having lowered it himself.

Was he ever wrong. McConnell promised to open the floor to more amendments and force senators to come to work -- and that he did. But as for finding common ground or actually passing any bills, the pattern seems set in stone. Despite winning historic majorities in both houses, Republicans haven’t changed Congress or themselves. They aren’t about to.

A quick recap:

Their only victory came before they were sworn in, when Obama leaned on Democrats to back a budget that increased defense spending, weakened efforts to slow global warming, allowed stock speculators to saddle taxpayers with their losses, and punched another hole in campaign finance laws. Republicans buried it all in a lame-duck budget because each of those moves are so unpopular. Obama said he gave in to avert a shutdown.

Once the session got going, things really fell apart. The House treated us to yet another return engagement of the Benghazi follies, tried to deny rape victims access to emergency contraception, repealed Obamacare for the 56th time and came within nanoseconds of defunding homeland security. The public strongly opposes each of these actions -- and truly detests the larger spectacle of endless gamesmanship in lieu of governance. But the GOP base loves it and Obama hates it, so they do it anyway, right up to the moment they’re sure the public is about to fry them. Then, as with Cuba or Ebola or the homeland security funding crisis, they ever so quietly drop the matter and move on to some fresh outrage.

Government to them is just electoral politics by other means. Their public hearings are mostly guerrilla warfare. Their floor votes are for show. Their abortion vote was timed to coincide with a pro-life rally in Washington. Their big event, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress, was timed to coincide with his election.

In our 2012 presidential election, Bibi meddled clumsily on Mitt Romney’s behalf. After Obama won, he named ex-GOP operative Ron Dermer as his ambassador to the U.S. Dermer and House Speaker John Boehner arranged Netanyahu's speech without telling Obama, the guy to whom the Constitution entrusts foreign policy. Other than to humiliate Obama and give Bibi a leg up in his race, the goal was to short-circuit the Iran nuclear weapons pact being negotiated by the U.S, U.K., France, China and Russia before anyone could read it, indeed before it even existed. Had a Democrat pulled such a stunt on a Republican president, they’d have called it treason.

Other than a preemptive military attack, Bibi doesn’t offer an alternative to a deal with Iran. That doesn’t bother Republicans, who offer no alternative to the healthcare law they repeal on the hour or to the immigration bill they won’t let Congress vote on. Boehner said Americans had “a good laugh" over Obama’s recent budget, but if you’ve had a year of high school math then you know Republicans haven’t offered a real alternative to an Obama budget since taking over the House in 2011.

Boehner was supposed to return this year with a wider margin of error and a tighter grip on his caucus. Instead, he seems as much a lame duck as Obama. He’d like to get an immigration bill and a budget deal, but he can forget the former and the latter could blow up his caucus and the whole government with it. Obama gets blamed for failing to connect with GOP leaders -- but in the days leading up to the near shutdown, Boehner and McConnell weren’t talking to each other. If the enduring dysfunction isn’t all McConnell’s fault, he nonetheless seems powerless to fix it.

Congress is likely to act on just two bills of significance, but they’re big ones: the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership and Obama’s request for authority to put "boots on the ground"—a hideously reductive phrase—in the fight against ISIS. To say that anyone voting for either is on treacherous political ground is a vast understatement. Before the global financial meltdown, a bare plurality of Americans favored free trade agreements. No more. Two-thirds now oppose giving Obama the "fast track" authority he seeks with the TPP. Republican opposition is higher still. As for ISIS, Americans feel something must be done but a plurality opposes sending in combat troops.  Since Korea, America has entered all its wars with broad public support that, with few exceptions, slowly dissipated. No modern president or Congress has ever sent our soldiers to fight with the country so divided from the first.

The ISIS debate will be hard. The TPP and budget debates will be harsh even by the standards of this Congress. But the harshest debates will be over nothing at all; they are mere public entertainments staged for no purpose but partisan advantage. It’s why the very sight and sound of Congress offends people. Like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid before them, Boehner and McConnell now want to elevate the tone and end the paralysis, but they can’t.

It isn’t just leaders of Congress who want to change but can’t. It’s as if, at its lowest ebb, the entire democracy was flash-frozen. You can see it in the state of both parties and in the nascent 2016 presidential race.

After its 2012 defeat the GOP issued a postmortem report that promised smart reforms. Like McConnell, GOP chair Reince Priebus delivered on technical and procedural stuff. (Mainly vows to cut back on debates and match the Democrats in data mining.) Among his goals: to get his party to back immigration reform; to rein in the huge PACs that had usurped the party's role; to attack “corporate malfeasance”; to hit the reset button with gays and women and to be more welcoming to non-whites.

Also like McConnell, Priebus bats zero on the big stuff. Immigration reform is dead to Republicans; it alone may sink Jeb Bush, by most measures their strongest presidential contender. Unless a CEO gave Obama money, the party has nothing to say about corporate abuse of any kind. Super PACs have swallowed up the party. As for inclusiveness and social intelligence, you can make a strong case that the 2016 GOP field is even worse than the last one.

Early 2016 GOP campaign events are like cattle calls for great herds of ignorant opportunists, ranging from the now pathetic Sarah Palin, to the ever more odious Donald Trump, to the apparently bright but seemingly demented Ben Carson, a doctor who spent last week walking back his professional medical opinion that homosexuality must be a choice because people in prison choose to be gay.  Carson calls Obamacare “the worst thing to happen to the nation since slavery” and recycles a fabricated quote from Lenin to connect it to communism.

If only the problem were confined to such oddities as Palin, Carson and Trump. It isn’t. Once they enter Republican primaries even decent and serious people turn frivolous and mean. It happened to maverick John McCain and centrist Mitt Romney. It happened to Mike Huckabee, who played the kinder conservative but stuck with pal Ted Nugent after Nugent called Obama a “sub-human mongrel.”

None of this would matter if only Democrats could change. They’ve yet to show they can. The one who seems most changed is President Obama. He’s had a busy, productive four months since the midterm and deserves credit. His Cuba initiative, his global warming accord with China, his executive order on immigration and his role in preserving net neutrality are all big deals. The budget he sent Congress would reverse decades of growing income inequality.

But as always with Obama, on closer inspection the picture is more complicated. He waited six years to propose such progressive fiscal and economic policies and does so now knowing they can’t be enacted on his watch. His major trade and foreign policy initiatives put him at odds not only with current progressives but with himself as he chose to appear in 2008. He says he acceded to Republican budget demands in December to avert a shutdown, but a likelier theory is that he wanted everything but the energy provisions, which he deemed minor.

As for the rest of the party, there’s little sign of life, let alone change. Two weeks ago the DNC issued a draft of its postmortem on its big defeat. The work was credited to a Democratic Victory Task Force appointed by DNC chair and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Besides vice chair Donna Brazile it has nine members. One is Google president Eric Schmidt. Three others work for political or marketing consulting firms with long lists of corporate clients. Two other members are a wealthy party fundraiser and a principal in a large corporate law firm. The group also includes a governor, a state party official and one union president.

The draft report is pathetic, especially compared to the Republicans’ 2012 effort. Its top recommendation is that the party “create a values-based narrative” and says “no area of review caused more debate or solicited more ideas than this.” It further says this “lack of a cohesive narrative impedes the party’s ability to develop and maintain a lifelong dialogue and partnership with voters.” That’s it; not a word about policy, just another call to fix the message without a syllable as to how.

The report calls for the party to do what we assume it does, develop its bench, fight against repressive voting restrictions and prepare for redistricting.  The only other interesting proposal is for a 50-state party building effort. Though they forgot to mention it, that was Howard Dean’s top priority when he was chairman. In 2008 Rahm Emanuel wanted the program cut and the money diverted to House races. Dean resisted -- and after the election Rahm got him fired. Dean was the most effective national chair the party has had in my adult lifetime. After 2014, if the DNC wants to be taken seriously it should allow Schultz to return to serving her constituents and ask Dean to come back and finish the job he started.

The most important question for Democrats now may be whether Hillary Rodham Clinton can change. The early signs aren’t good. She has made better hires than in 2008. But the strategy is all wrong. In politics one of the worst lies you can tell yourself is that the campaign hasn’t started yet. Hillary goes out about as often as Boo Radley and when she does it’s to visit other privileged people who pay fat fees to hear her say almost nothing.

Her handlers say she needs the cash to fund operations till her campaign gets up and running and that voters won’t care or remember. If she or her people really think that, she’s in trouble. Her lead over her opponents has dropped by a half to two-thirds since January -- and that was before this week's ruckus over her emails. Her people say voters will forget about that too. Maybe so, but the traits she exhibits now got her in trouble in her last campaign and even in her days as First Lady fighting for health care and fending off her husband’s pursuers. It’s a bunker mentality infused with a scent of entitlement and it’s a deadly combination. Regardless of whether any other Democrat gets up the gumption to challenge her, she needs to get outdoors right now -- and she needs to have something to say.

McConnell, Boehner, Obama and Clinton all struggle to change. It’s the system that sucks them back in; that and their inability to see past it.  It’s the war of the bases, the craving for money and the mindless faith in mindless message politics. Everybody’s in the same prison and nobody gets to change without breaking out of it. If they don’t believe this, they should peek outside their cell windows and see the change that’s starting without them.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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