California has given us lots of things – the Hula Hoop, the Frisbee, the Beach Boys and then Jefferson Airplane and the Doors, and then Laurel Canyon mellow, and the Bakersfield Sound too – Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and those guys – and skateboards and Steve Jobs and all the Apple gizmos, and Google and Facebook and whatnot. California is where what’s new and next starts, and of course California gave us the Amazing Disappearing Republican Party.
That happened here first. Republicans simply disappeared in California, the state that gave America both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. It may be that electing Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor was the last straw, but probably not. Ronald Reagan had been a second-rate actor too, but Reagan had done his homework. He had ideas about government – rather bad ideas as it turned out, but ideas nonetheless. Schwarzenegger had attitude, and attitude is not policy – but the party had made a mess of things long before he came along. Prop 13 made it so no one’s property taxes ever went up until the pleasant little ranch house changed ownership. Never sell your house and you’ll be fine – and this decimated the tax base. State revenue then depended on state income taxes and the sales tax – highly volatile, as economic downturns meant no steady revenue and thus big cuts to everything. That happens when income disappears and no one’s buying anything. The schools and roads and social services fell apart.
That wasn’t a brilliant Republican idea, and then, in 1994, Pete Wilson managed to ram through a referendum that cut off even basic emergency services for immigrants, and the Hispanic vote was lost to the Republicans forever. What Pete Wilson did was intentionally mean-spirited, a way for angry and panicked white folks to register their contempt and spite. They did, and it went downhill from there. We voted the bums out. The voters had had enough. They voted in Democratic supermajorities in the legislature, so the Republicans could do no more than sputter and fume, and brought back Jerry Brown as governor again – a guy who actually knows a thing or two about policy. The state is finally in the black now, actually funding the schools and fixing the roads and repairing the Republican damage. The Republicans went into hiding.
Then things got nasty. In a long 2012 New York Times analysis of the situation, there was this paragraph:
“The institution of the California Republican Party, I would argue, has effectively collapsed,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant who was a senior adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger. “It doesn’t do any of the things that a political party should do. It doesn’t register voters. It doesn’t recruit candidates. It doesn’t raise money. The Republican Party in the state institutionally has become a small ideological club that is basically in the business of hunting out heretics.”
The party turned inward. They were done in the state, and the question is whether this will happen nationally, and that question has been answered:
The infamously fractious House Republican Conference sank deeper into chaos Thursday after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew his bid to replace John A. Boehner as speaker, a stunning move that left the party scrambling to find a new leader and deeply uncertain about how to effectively manage the House.
McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced his surprise decision at a meeting of House Republicans who gathered to select their candidate for speaker ahead of the official floor vote scheduled for Oct. 29. McCarthy was widely expected to win the support of his colleagues.
Instead he emerged to declare: “We need a fresh face.” McCarthy said at a news conference that he did not want to burden his members with a tough vote for speaker.
It seems the party turned inward, although McCarthy was prone to saying dumb things:
McCarthy’s candidacy to succeed the retiring Boehner (R-Ohio) was damaged in recent days by a public gaffe – a television interview in which he seemed to suggest that the Select Committee on Benghazi, the panel assembled by Republicans to investigate the 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya, was intended to damage Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential poll numbers.
“Well, that wasn’t helpful. I could have said it much better,” McCarthy acknowledged after dropping out of the race.
But that wasn’t it:
On the eve of Thursday’s planned vote, a group of 30 to 40 of the chamber’s most conservative members, known as the Freedom Caucus, significantly changed the dynamics of the race by promising to throw its weight behind low-profile Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) over McCarthy.
The move had jeopardized McCarthy’s chances to lock up the speakership on the floor, where he could not afford to lose more than 29 Republican votes if he wanted to win without Democratic support. In McCarthy’s place, they pledged to push for one of their own, a hard-liner on fiscal and social issues.
That would be someone who would shut down the government over Planned Parenthood funding, and refuse to raise the debt limit, even if that would start a worldwide economic collapse as we slowly stopped paying our debts and all US Treasury Bonds because worthless. That would be someone who was tough, willing to cause misery and chaos unless the Freedom Caucus got what it wanted – repeal of Obamacare, or getting rid of the EPA or the Department of Education, or deporting eleven million workers who sneaked into America, or whatever it was this week. They wanted a speaker who would compromise on nothing. If you have the power to ruin everything, use that power, damn it!
That called for MSNBC to trot out Steve Schmidt:
Asked by breaking news anchor Brian Williams what he made of the story, Schmidt began with an analogy about there being “two types of political parties just like there’s two types of churches” as “there’s the type of church that hunts heretics and the type of church that seeks converts” with the GOP now firmly falling into the latter camp “of hunting heretics.”
And he worries about his party:
“We are focused on kicking out people who through some prism are deemed to be impure. So, it’s a big moment here. … I think also today, you have an astronomically greater likelihood now of government shut downs, of possible default on the full faith and credit of the United States. So, this will – this will have pretty profound implications for a party that is seeking the White House after having lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections.”
He knows what happened in California. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is from California, from Bakersfield, one of the last of the Republican enclaves out here, the congressional district that also gave us Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, but not in office. As goes California, so goes America.
This is not good, and Chris Cillizza surveys the damage:
The tendency in the after-action reporting on McCarthy’s stunning collapse – and, make no mistake, it is stunning – will be to pinpoint a single reason for it. Among the popular ones: rumors of personal problems, an inability to win over the more conservative members of his conference, and his recent flub when talking about the Benghazi select committee.
But, those single-issue theories all miss the broader point here: There is a revolution happening within the Republican Party right now. The establishment’s hold on power is more tenuous than it has been at any time in recent memory. There is no one currently in office that can claim with any credibility that he or she speaks “for” the party as a whole.
That’s a remarkable development since, for decades, the GOP was known as the party that, eventually, got in line. As in: Republicans tended to nominate the guy for president who was perceived as the runner-up the last time around. And, they might grumble but they eventually acceded to the wishes of congressional leaders like Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert. The Democrats were always the rebellious party; the GOP was the follow-the-rules party.
No longer. McCarthy’s demise comes hard on the heels of Boehner bowing out of the speakership as a sort of human sacrifice to the tea party right. And it happens as Donald Trump is in the midst of his fourth consecutive month as the Republican front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination – and with Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, two other people who have never held elected office before, running in second and third place, respectively.
Given all of that, it never made any sense for McCarthy to move up to speaker… In a party whose base is sending a clear message that they are sick and tired of the status quo, the idea of simply moving each member of leadership up a slot was insane.
Instead, the party decided to purge the heretics:
The argument for McCarthy – when weighed against the anger and passion against the establishment coursing through the base – was feeble. The members like him! He texts them on their birthdays! He’s been to their districts! Dick Cheney endorsed him! None of that was a match for the fundamental belief – within the base and among Republican politicians trying to channel that base – that McCarthy was part of the problem, not the solution. He was doomed to have an ending like this – no matter the extenuating personal circumstances that might have also influenced the lack of support for him.
If you are Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or John Kasich, what happened on Thursday in Washington should put a lump in your throat. The Republican establishment has been operating for months – really since the rise of Trump – under a belief that, eventually, things will return to “normal” and that the party will put forward an establishment candidate for president. That was the same wrong-headed thinking I heard constantly in the run-up to today’s speaker vote: Yeah, sure, conservatives weren’t sold on McCarthy, but the alternatives weren’t any good or serious, and so he would win. Nope.
This threat to the establishment from the conservative activist base is real. … But, I also think that the possibility exists that the establishment doesn’t have the ability to put down this revolution. Which is an amazing thing to ponder as the country gets ready to elect a new president…
Karen Tumulty puts that this way:
Less than a year after a sweeping electoral triumph, Republicans are on the verge of ceasing to function as a national political party.
The most powerful and crippling force at work in the once-hierarchical GOP is anger, directed as much at its own leaders as anywhere else.
First, a contingent of several dozen conservative House members effectively forced Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) to resign rather than face a possibly losing battle to hold on to his job. Now they have claimed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who had been considered the favorite to replace Boehner until he announced Thursday that he is dropping out of the race.
With no obvious replacement for Boehner in sight, “it is total confusion, a banana republic,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). “Any plan, anything you anticipate – who knows what’ll happen? People are crying. They don’t have any idea how this will unfold, at all.”
They’re crying for a reason:
Parallel currents of rage and chaos have been roiling the 2016 presidential race, diminishing hopes that an eventual nominee can bring order and direction to the increasingly dysfunctional party.
Initially, GOP elders believed that their primary would be a showcase for a cast of well-regarded senators and governors, current and former. They were confident it would be an appealing contrast to the quirky group of GOP candidates who had run in 2012, and to the Democratic contest, where Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to be cruising to the nomination.
But government experience has become a liability for Republicans, rather than a credential. Celebrity billionaire Donald Trump, the leader in every poll, has rallied the conservative base by mocking the entire GOP establishment as weak and feckless. Many of the other candidates have followed his lead.
“You know Kevin McCarthy is out, you know that, right?” Trump crowed to a crowd of about 1,500 in Las Vegas, “They’re giving me a lot of credit for that, because I said you really need somebody very, very tough – and very smart.”
The former Republican Party is over. This may be the day it disappeared:
For all their gains on the state and local level, Republicans are deepening the problems that have cost them the popular vote in all but one of the last six presidential elections. The divisive and exclusionary rhetoric of their 2016 contenders has hit a chord with primary voters – Trump, for instance, has made a series of insulting comments about women and immigrants – but threatens to further alienate key groups of voters in an increasingly diverse country.
Out here, in 1994, Pete Wilson championed a referendum that cut off even basic emergency services for immigrants, and the Hispanic vote was lost to the Republicans forever – something intentionally mean-spirited, a way for angry and panicked white folks to register their contempt and spite. They did. The Republican Party died out here. Trump’s call for a big wall and his immediate deportation of eleven million Hispanics is the same sort of thing, but it’s more than that:
There are institutional forces at work as well that make it more difficult for the party to bring itself into anything resembling a formation. Junior members of Congress no longer have to seek the favor of more senior ones to rise through the ranks. Modern media has given them the power to play to a national audience – as presidential contender and first-term senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has demonstrated in the Senate.
In July, Cruz went so far as to call Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a liar on the floor of the Senate. Such a breach of decorum would have been unthinkable in earlier times, but it has burnished Cruz’s image with the conservative base.
Changes in campaign finance laws have made the parties themselves less powerful and ideologically driven outside groups more so. In the presidential race, the Republican National Committee set up a process aimed at making the nomination more orderly than in 2012 by compressing the calendar of state primaries and caucuses and allowing fewer debates.
That strategy may have backfired. Given the size of the Republican field – 14 candidates at the latest count – the new party-imposed order may actually have made it more difficult for any of the more mainstream candidates to overtake outsiders Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.
Now almost every candidate has a single billionaire sponsor, except for Trump, who is a billionaire. The party can’t do much about that. It seems the party can’t do much, period.
Slate’s Jim Newell sees the problem:
Who now? The most obvious name at first was Rep. Paul Ryan: chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, 2012 vice presidential candidate, and author of the Obama-era conservative budget blueprints. So obvious was Ryan as a candidate for Great Unifier that he immediately had to put out a statement saying, Oh God, no, no, no, never, ever, ever. Boehner is reportedly still working desperately to get him to change his mind. But why would he want to leave his powerful committee chairmanship to take America’s Worst Job?
And he might not get the job:
Since Democrats have decided to let Republicans resolve this leadership dispute by themselves – and are enjoying what they see – it’s apparently going to take 218 out of 247 Republican votes to elect a speaker. That candidate, whoever he or she is, will need the support of the House Freedom Caucus and its few dozen members who vote as a bloc.
Heading into Thursday’s canceled vote, Freedom Caucus members had endorsed Rep. Daniel Webster – as a means of leverage. They claimed to be willing to vote for McCarthy on the floor if he would meet their demands, which included just about everything up to and including weekly foot rubs. Rep. Dave Brat, who defeated then–Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary and apparently feels it’s his place to rule the country as a freshman backbencher, said the Freedom Caucus wants changes in “rules, policy, process” and wants that “on paper ahead of time,” the Washington Post reported Wednesday night.
Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp “said he asked McCarthy to make a public statement opposing efforts by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other establishment-oriented groups to oppose conservative Republican incumbents who have broken with GOP leadership,” according to the Post. It takes some chutzpah for Tea Partiers – who live to bring down “establishment” candidates in primaries – to demand that they be shielded from counter-challenges themselves. And, perhaps most frightening of all for the global economy and those who rely on its continued functioning to “live,” they insist that the next speaker demand concessions in exchange for a hike in the debt ceiling. Credit McCarthy, at least, for stepping aside instead of making promises he couldn’t keep.
Newell also suggests this:
One imagines Ryan, in solitude, sitting by the fire, thinking very statesmanlike thoughts. Such as: Ugh, do I really have to do this dumb job? So should he?
What Ryan certainly would want to avoid is another ambush from the few dozen conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, which effectively vetoed McCarthy’s bid. Sure, he’s supposedly respected by all now. But Tea Partiers are fickle. One day you’re the golden child; the next day you support some compromise bill that they don’t like, and suddenly you’re a left-liberal in cahoots with Obama’s “European-style socialist” agenda.
If Ryan is truly as strong as Boehner and others say he is, he should use that as leverage before giving an answer. House conservatives tried to bully McCarthy into accepting a wish list of unrealistic demands, and when he didn’t agree, he had to step aside. Ryan could – and if he’s shrewd, should – turn the tables. He could make the Freedom Caucus pledge (or better yet, sign a contract in blood) not to ever threaten a coup against him. He could demand that they vote with the leadership on critical budget, appropriations, and debt ceiling bills. They would be barred from going to Tortilla Coast to plot with Sen. Ted Cruz.
It comes down to this:
If conservatives don’t agree to his terms, then Ryan shouldn’t bother. But if they really want him, and agree, he would be doing an enormous favor for his party. And though it is America’s worst job, Speaker of the House Who Saved the Broken Republican Party wouldn’t be such a bad chapter to have in one’s legacy.
That’s better than Pete Wilson’s legacy out here, but Newell does add this:
The only silver lining of McCarthy’s collapse, and all the potential horror that goes with it, is that Boehner has proven himself to be literally irreplaceable as speaker. Boehner himself, who likely has dozens of tee times in the Bahamas reserved for November, can’t be too thrilled with that. But if his service in Washington is extended through the early November debt-ceiling deadline, then he should call up a “clean” debt ceiling increase that takes the country through the 2016 election. What can the House Freedom Caucus do about that? It’s not like they can replace him.
And after that… Everyone knows what comes after that. California is where what’s new and next starts, and of course California gave us the Amazing Disappearing Republican Party. There you go.