It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (13 page)

BOOK: It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump
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It isn’t unusual to see both parties blamed for the dysfunction in Washington, which is one of those generalities that fall into a useless-truth category. Yes, both parties are to blame, but here is the actual relevant question to ask: Is one party more to blame than the other? Professor McCarty is clear on Republicans’ greater role in the negativity of polarization:

The evidence points to a major partisan asymmetry in polarization. Despite the widespread belief that both parties have moved to the extremes, the movement of the Republican Party to the right accounts for most of the divergence between the two parties. Since the 1970s, each new cohort of Republican legislators has taken more conservative positions on legislation than the cohorts before them. That is not true of Democratic legislators.
11

Looking back at the thirty-eight Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted for the 1994 assault weapons ban is like stumbling across artifacts of a long-lost civilization. These elements of the party were always a minority, but their existence and acceptance allowed the party to at least pretend it was a tolerant big-tent party with a divergence of ideology. It was obvious since 1964 that “moderates”—a flexible characterization that is graded on the curve of the moment’s politics—would not be dominant in the party, but when there were prominent elected officials who were pro-choice, supported gun control like the assault weapons ban, spoke out convincingly on civil rights, and were committed to governing victories over ideological defeats, it altered the perception of the party. That has all changed. Today most of the thirty-eight Republicans who supported the assault weapons ban would have little place in the Republican Party. Joe McDade from Pennsylvania’s Tenth Congressional District was one of seven Republicans who signed a telegram in 1966 to Georgia’s governor, Carl Sanders, after the Georgia General Assembly refused to seat the black antiwar activist and civil rights leader Julian Bond. The telegram called the refusal “a dangerous attack on representative government. None of us agree with Mr. Bond’s views on the Vietnam War; in fact we strongly repudiate those views. But unless otherwise determined by a court of law, which the Georgia Legislature is not, he is entitled to express them.”
12

Compare this with today’s Republican Party that chants “Lock her/him up” about political opponents. Congresswoman Deborah Pryce from Columbus, Ohio, was a member of the Republican Majority for Choice and Republicans for Environmental Protection. The seat is now held by Steve Stivers, who has an A rating from the NRA, has voted for abortion bans, and reaffirmed his endorsement of Donald Trump after the
Access Hollywood
tape in which Trump bragged of assaulting women. The Sierra Club endorsed Congressman Jim Saxton from New Jersey’s Third District. A Democrat, Andy Kim, who was a Rhodes scholar and endorsed by President Obama, now holds that seat. In Massachusetts, Peter Blute, who supported the assault weapons ban, was defeated two years later by the Democrat Jim McGovern, and only one Republican, Scott Brown, has won a House or Senate race in Massachusetts since Blute. (I worked for Governor Bill Weld when he ran against John Kerry in 1996; we lost.)

From the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the Republican Wayne Gilchrest supported some abortion rights, was the only Republican to support D.C. statehood, and was co-chairman of the Congressional Climate Change Caucus. (Unimaginable now.) He was defeated in the 2008 Republican primary by a right-winger who then lost the general election. In Iowa, Congressman Jim Leach was a Princeton and Johns Hopkins graduate, a former Foreign Service officer, and pro-choice, and he served as president of the largest international association of legislators, Parliamentarians for Global Action. That was before Republicans decided “globalists” was a code word for some shadowy international cabal of Jewish bankers. In his 2006 reelection, Leach refused to let the Republican National Committee attack his Democratic opponent Dave Loebsack for supporting gay marriage, and he lost a close race. Loebsack continues to hold the seat.

These thirty-eight who stood up to the NRA belonged to a Republican Party that no longer exists. In 2011, Mike Lofgren ended a twenty-eight year career as one of the most respected Republican budget experts and staffers on Capitol Hill when he left the Republican Party in disgust. In his career, Lofgren had witnessed the transformation of the Republican Party from a party that at least pretended to serve a competent governing duty to a well-funded collection of political warriors with no greater purpose than staying in power. As he wrote in
The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted,
“When I came to Washington in the early 1980s, the GOP was the ‘party of ideas’ and seemed on the verge of becoming the dominant political factor on the American scene.”
13
He summed up the change embodied in the insanity of the government shutdown in 2011 over the passage of a simple bill to extend the national debt ceiling and stop the government from default:

To those millions of Americans who watched with exasperation the tragicomedy of summer 2011’s debt-ceiling extension crisis, it might have come as a shock that the Republican Party is so full of lunatics. To be sure, like any political party on Earth, the GOP has always had its share of crackpots, such as Robert K. Dornan or William E. Dannemeyer in past Congresses. But the crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become the vital core today: Eric Cantor, Steve King, Michele Bachmann, Paul Broun, Patrick McHenry, Virginia Foxx, Louie Gohmert, and Allen West. The
Congressional Directory
now reads like a casebook of lunacy.
14

That was in 2011, or the pre-Trump era that is now considered “the good ole days.” Writing years before Trump supposedly “hijacked” the Republican Party from its higher purpose, Lofgren explained perfectly the conditions that made a Donald Trump not a freak by-product of a flawed Electoral College but an inevitable next step on the path chosen by Republicans:

The GOP has been gradually shedding its status as a broad coalition party and has started demanding litmus tests on fiscal, social, and foreign policy issues. There were signposts on the road ahead—the Gingrich revolution of 1995, the Clinton impeachment circus—but things got much worse after September 11, with the massive infringements of civil liberties that followed and the bluster and bravado that preceded the invasion of Iraq. By the 2010 midterm election the party had collectively lost its mind. The evidence is all around us: the debt ceiling debacle, the kamikaze politics over the payroll tax cut extension, the freak show of the Republican presidential debates.

When Tom Ridge was facing a decision on how to vote on the 1994 assault weapons ban, I’d like to say I urged him to vote for the ban, that I channeled my inner Jimmy Stewart in
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
and urged him to do what would make the Boy Rangers proud. I didn’t, nor did I advise him to vote against it. I never thought my role was to remind clients of their deeply held beliefs. But I know I was hoping he would vote against it. I cared about one thing—winning—and had every reason to believe it would mean we’d lose.

(Six years later, I was jogging in Crawford, Texas, with Governor Bush during the time when he was considering whom to pick as vice president. It was the middle of the day, well over a hundred degrees, and we were sweating so much it felt more like swimming than running. “Governor,” I asked, “would it be appropriate for me to make a suggestion on the VP?” Without missing a step or looking at me, Bush said, “Hell no. Why the hell would I care what you think?” We were running with Mark McKinnon, and he came close to falling down into the scrub grass laughing. Later, Governor Bush said to me, “Stevens, let me get you some advice. When a guy is getting married, wait until he asks what you think of his fiancée before you tell him.” It did seem like very good advice. If given the chance, I was going to push Governor Ridge.)

Looking back, I often think I represented the worst of the American political system, just focused on winning without regard for the consequences. That I stumbled into a profession which considered only winning an acceptable ethical code might serve as a convenient excuse, but it was hardly a justification. Of those congressmen who voted against the assault weapons ban, it would be foolishly disingenuous to assert that each did so for political reasons. It’s fair to say that many believed it was the right vote based on their principles. But few of those who supported the NRA position opposing the assault weapons ban would agree with the extreme attacks on law enforcement, calling those who put their lives on the line defending Americans “jack-booted thugs.” But only a handful had the courage to take the step President George H. W. Bush took in resigning from the NRA.

The negative effects of special interest money on our politics are often blamed for much of the collapse of governance. In
So Damn Much Money,
the
Washington Post
reporter Robert Kaiser traced the impact of money, using the example of the 2006 conviction of the Republican lobbyist and former head of the College Republicans Jack Abramoff as a parable of the corruption of money in politics:

In a debate on campaign finance reform in 1971, one of the lions of the Senate, Russell B. Long, observed that “the distinction between a campaign contribution and a bribe is almost a hairline’s difference. You can hardly tell one from the other.” Long spoke at a time when candidates for the House and Senate raised tens or hundreds of thousands to run campaigns every two or six years. A generation later, when Abramoff got into trouble, members of the House and Senate raised millions, or tens of millions, to wage their re-election campaigns. They routinely spent a fourth or a third of their working hours soliciting those campaign contributions that Long and Abramoff both thought looked a great deal like bribes.
15

As a high-level congressional staffer for decades, Mike Lofgren had a close view of the corruption of our campaign finance system:

The police and petty bureaucrats in many Third World countries are openly corrupt and will take bribes in order to augment their miserable salaries. In the United States it is relatively difficult to bribe a cop to get out of a traffic ticket or to slip money to a DMV functionary to get preferential treatment. You need to go higher up the governmental food chain in order to practice corruption successfully. But you can find bribery and corruption just about anytime, year-round, in Washington. It is called a fund-raiser, when a congress member’s campaign committee rents a room in a restaurant and invites a hundred or so of his or her closest friends from the lobbying shops on K Street, from industry, and from the trade associations. I’ve been to a few of these over the years and often wondered whether any of the Gucci-shod participants in their two-thousand-dollar suits and monogrammed shirts imagined that they were righteously engaged in the constitutional practice of petitioning for the redress of grievances as they handed over their checks before tucking into the hors d’oeuvres.
16

I’ve become a radical on campaign finance and support a system of federal funding for all elections. It seems to be forgotten these days, but one of the key post-Watergate reforms was a system of federal funding for presidential elections. Under the system, each candidate received around $80 million—it went up every four years—in exchange for agreeing to not raise or spend more money. The check was presented to the campaign when the candidate finished giving his acceptance speech at the national convention. (It was always a check; invariably we’d ask if the money could be wired to a campaign account, and the answer was always, “No, we do checks.”) This system was why, in the Bush campaign, we pushed the 2004 convention to as late as possible. The law stipulated it had to be accepted no later than sixty days before the election; it dawned on us that we’d get the same amount of money at the end of August as in June or July, and there’d be an advantage to concentrating the amount in a shorter period of time.

Every presidential candidate stuck to that system until 2008, when Barack Obama, after routinely pledging to accept federal funding, realized how much money he could raise and decided to reject federal funding. John McCain stayed in the system with the result that he had $83 million for his campaign and Obama had more than $300 million for his. As is always the case with campaign finance reforms, once the system was broken, it proved impossible to put the genie back in the bottle, and subsequent candidates rejected public funding. Today some defend the decision by then senator Obama to blow up the system, insisting it was necessary to cope with the large amount of money Republicans could raise after the
Citizens United
Supreme Court decision that allowed contributions from corporations to be treated the same as individual donations—an explanation that makes no sense, because the ruling was two years after the 2008 campaign. The ending of the federal funding system is, in my view, one of the most negative long-term legacies of the Obama administration.

Money and the necessity of its craven pursuit have polluted and twisted our elections in destructive ways that all reduce the power of the individual, distorting the essence of democracy in ways unimaginable even fifty years ago. But it isn’t really the power of money that gave right-wing special interests so much power over Republican politicians; it’s the ability of those groups to mobilize voters. A candidate can always raise more money from different sources. An infinite amount of money is available to candidates who are willing to do the demeaning work of fund-raising and have a message that motivates some segments of the electorate. But there are a finite number of voters in every election. Both parties have a vast array of special interests, from the NRA to labor unions, that have the ability to mobilize voters to support or oppose their choice of candidates. The difference between the impact of these groups on each party goes to the fundamental asymmetrical structures of the parties. The modern Democratic Party is a much more diverse, heterogeneous association of voters. By definition it is more difficult for one group to have like influence over female African Americans (the voters who defeated Roy Moore in Alabama), college-educated men, Hispanics who speak Spanish at home, and urban young voters. The core groups that influence the Democratic nominating process the most are African Americans, labor, and liberals. These are wildly disparate voters with different, sometimes competing interests.

BOOK: It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump
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