The ascendance of Donald Trump has proven vexing for conservative pundits. They were once so enthused by the GOP’s 2014 midterm gains and “deep bench” of White House hopefuls, but now they’re having trouble explaining how it is that Trump and Ted Cruz (and, perfunctorily, John Kasich) are the last men standing in the 2016 race. The answers to these questions are painful, as they require recognition that the toxic Republican politics of the last eight years were cheered along by the conservative media right up to the point that Trump won New Hampshire. So rather than grapple with tough, introspective analysis, they’re settling on a shallower, more viscerally satisfying explanation: it’s Barack Obama’s fault.
The latest conservative writer to try his hand at this genre of punditry is the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger, who Thursday offers up a fine summary of Republican dysfunction during the Obama era, but lays ultimate responsibility for it on Obama and the passage of the Affordable Care Act. “He is now close to destroying his political enemies,” Henninger writes of Obama, “the Republican Party, the American conservative movement and the public-policy legacy of Ronald Reagan.”
Arriving at this thesis required Henninger to modify his existing opinions of Obama and the ACA, which up to this point he’d treated as an existential threat to the political health of the Democratic Party. Henninger has called the Affordable Care Act “the greatest fiasco of [Obama’s] presidency.” He’s written about it in forward-looking historical terms as the political cancer that will kill the Democrats. “When 50 years from now historians search for evidence of when the Democratic Party’s decline began,” Henninger wrote in the aftermath of the 2014 elections, “they’ll fix on this famous blurting of the truth about ObamaCare by House Speaker Pelosi: ‘We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.’” As the ACA stumbled through its calamitous rollout in 2013, Henninger prophesied: “Forty years from now, the millennials who in 2008 and 2012 believed in and voted for the progressive ideal – limitless, mandated, state-led goodness – can tell their grandchildren they watched it fall apart in 2013. This is the glitch that failed.”
As for the political bedlam that sprung from the ACA’s passage, Henninger has written about it as a symptom of Obama’s incompetence, as opposed to a political calculation intended to “destroy” his enemies. “Cynics and conspirators believe that the ever-clever Obama White House has sucked the oxygen out of the budget negotiations so that the Republicans would shut down Washington, alienate independents and lose the House in 2014,” Henninger wrote just as the 2013 Obamacare-inspired government shutdown was getting started. “But I don't think this president is that smart. His skills at conducting presidential politics in Washington are minimal. This chaos is the result.”
Now, it turns out, the Affordable Care Act was actually a political trap that Obama deviously lured the Republicans into opposing. And, according to Henninger’s revised future history, it will the undoing of the GOP. Henninger writes today:
History may quibble, but this death-spiral began with Barack Obama’s health-care summit at Blair House on Feb. 25, 2010. For a day, Republicans gave detailed policy critiques of the proposed Affordable Care Act. When it was over, the Democrats, including Mr. Obama, said they had heard nothing new.
That meeting was the last good-faith event in the Obama presidency. Barack Obama killed politics in Washington that day because he had no use for it, and has said so many times. The Democrats survived the Obama desert by going to ground. But frustrated Republicans outside Congress eventually started tearing each other apart.
This is a bizarre diagnosis of political dysfunction in the Obama era. A better start date for the GOP death spiral would be January 20, 2009 – the first day of the Obama administration, when top Republicans in Congress met in secret and decided on a strategy of all-out obstruction aimed at denying Obama any legislative victories and squashing his reelection hopes. The party decided to act as bad-faith obstructionists long before the first draft of the Affordable Care Act was put together. They painted every action by the Obama administration as an existential threat to the country, to the Constitution, and to the notion of American identity, and they set themselves up for failure by promising voters they would undo the entire Obama agenda.
Barack Obama and his legislative accomplishments can be credited for the implosion of the modern Republican Party to the extent that he was in office when Republicans made the collective decision to give up on governing. Conservative pundits like Henninger recognize the rot that’s taken over their party but remain determinedly blind as to its source and prefer to default to the accepted right-wing view that everything bad that happens in Washington is ultimately the fault of the Democratic president. But it is not and never was Obama’s responsibility to make sure that the GOP didn’t behave like self-destructive clowns.