The GOP is ruthless
The last two days have given us an instructive glimpse of what American politics has become in the Trump era — and in particular of the stylistic and strategic gulf that now separates the country's two main parties.
On Monday, the Justice Department's Inspector General Michael Horowitz released his report on the use of surveillance powers by the FBI in the Russia investigation that ensnared the Trump campaign and administration. The report concluded that, although there were missteps in the investigation, the FBI displayed no bias in initiating the counter-intelligence probe. Democrats and anti-Trump conservatives praised the findings, calling them a vindication of federal law enforcement as well as a demonstration that the government can investigate itself fairly and rigorously.
Then, on Tuesday, House Democrats unveiled two articles of impeachment against President Trump, while also announcing that they had reached a deal with the administration for new provisions to strengthen the North American trade pact formerly known as NAFTA. Responding to critics who said it was ludicrous to give the president a policy win on the same day that articles of impeachment were presented to the country, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) responded that failing "for political gain" to do "something good for the American people" is "what the president is being impeached for," and Democrats were "not going to do that."
On the other side of the aisle, things have been sharply different. Fastening onto the criticisms of the FBI in the IG report and blasting Horowitz for going much easier on the bureau than he should have, Trump has let loose with a barrage of invective against the entire process, including the judgment of FBI Director Christopher Wray, whom Trump himself appointed, for backing Horowitz. The president has been joined in the criticism by Attorney General William Barr, who sided with the president against Horowitz and the FBI he oversees.
When it comes to the articles of impeachment, Trump has blasted the process, promising to fight it every step of the way. He also spent a good part of the day meeting in the Oval Office with Sergey Lavrov, Russia's top diplomat — a man whose White House visit in 2017, coming one day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, sparked intense controversy after it was revealed that the president had disclosed highly classified information to him. When Lavrov's visit on Tuesday was over, Trump tweeted out a picture of himself with his guest along with a statement bragging about their "very good meeting." It was an astonishing gesture of contempt for his political opponents — almost a taunt on a day when they hoped to place him firmly on the defensive.
On one side, we have an earnest defense of process and extra-political institutions, and the public-spirited quest for bipartisanship in the name of the common good. On the other, a ruthless pursuit of political victory by any means necessary, including the generous use of disinformation, outright lies, and trolling. Put in slightly different terms, Republicans believe that the only way to achieve good things for the American people is to win as much political power as possible — to thoroughly vanquish their opponents, and to do so without mercy — while the Democrats … don't at all believe the same about themselves or their opponents.
Perhaps that goes a little too far. Some Democrats might believe it. But many don't. That certainly includes the Democratic presidential frontrunner, Joe Biden, who told a crowd in Iowa last week that he's "really worried" about either party having too much power. Though Trump's defeat would bring "serious consequences" for the GOP, Biden wanted Democratic voters to know that they shouldn't pine for a country without a Republican Party. "If you hear people on the rope line saying, 'I'm a Republican,' I say, 'Stay a Republican.' Vote for me but stay a Republican, because we need a Republican Party."
Is it even remotely conceivable that Trump or Barr or Rep. Devin Nunes of California or Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida or any other prominent Republican member of the House would express such a high-minded, politically self-abnegating sentiment about the GOP? Or offer words of praise for the Democratic Party? Of course not.
And therein lies the greatest difference between the two parties as we prepare to enter the 2020 presidential race. It's not a difference over tax rates or the size of government or America's conduct in the world. It's a difference over how politics itself ought to be conducted.
The Democrats have a very broad — perhaps too broad — electoral coalition. It includes Bernie Sanders voters and Michael Bloomberg voters and even a few Tulsi Gabbard voters, and a whole lot of people between them. That's a massive ideological spread. And the act of trying to make the tent broad enough leads the party to include a fair number of Democrats who like Republicans more than they like many of their fellow Democrats. As a result, the Democratic Party is less a unified, goal-directed tribe than a ragtag coalition of ideological impulses and factional interests that sometimes agree about goals and tactics but often don't.
The GOP, by contrast, is a tribe in the relevant sense. Aside from a handful of conservative journalists, intellectuals, think tank analysts, and professors, who share the Democratic fondness for bipartisan consensus and deal-making across the aisle, and who define the common good in terms of the overcoming of partisanship, rank-and-file Republicans want their party to win above all else. They don't want to appoint a few conservative judges who will fight to a draw with liberal judges. They want to replace as many liberal judges as they possibly can with conservative judges so that conservative jurisprudence will prevail throughout the country. Republicans don't want to reach a compromise with liberalism or socialism. They want to rout liberalism and socialism. And for the most part, they are willing to suppress their differences in order to make it happen.
That's how we've ended up in a situation where Republicans come to the political battlefield brandishing pistols and Bowie knives, while Democrats show up armed with policy position papers and noble-sounding speeches.
As a writer who cares about ideas and public policy debates, and as an American whose soul is stirred by elevated political rhetoric, I know which side I prefer. But I also know which side is likely to prevail in a firefight.
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