The American Conservative
For Republicans who had spent a half-decade revolted by their own ranks, their party’s facilitation of what they saw as an erratic demagogue, and all the attendant cultural attention that winning power on his terms accorded them, losing the presidential election, gaining seats in the House and apparently holding the Senate seemed like best result in the world, to close out a shocking, miserable year.
To read the Wall Street Journal, the staple publication of the center-right, in the weeks after the November election was to stand witness to a fiesta. A checked and checked-out centrist had been elected president and the elements of Trumpism the old guard enjoyed — a tax cut, the gutting of Obamacare’s individual mandate, the erosion of Iranian power, and a jacked-up stock market — appeared here to stay. Considering the hellfire that rained down on Trump and the Republicans in 2020, it appeared a surprisingly merciful result. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, spoke in the week after that the Republicans, outside of President Trump, particularly, had made gains with minorities, and had apparently stopped the bleeding with women, minorities and the educated. All true. There was just one problem: the Republicans had to hold the Senate.
And as of Wednesday morning, the Republicans appear to have failed to do so.
Raphael Warnock, the latest instance in the long-running American tradition of the black preacher-politician, will be a United States Senator from Georgia, the Peach State that once fielded a slate of some of the nation’s staunchest segregationists. He defrocks Kelly Loeffler, a neophyte politician who showed her experience in her short Senatorial career that was immediately subsumed early last year by a Coronavirus insider trading scandal in which she far from acquitted herself in the court of public opinion.
Jon Ossoff, 33, appears set to be the upper chamber’s youngest member (robbing Sen. Josh Hawley, 41, of that mantle), but his race with first term Sen. David Perdue is too close to call. But most election whizes outside of Perdue HQ report that it’s now Ossoff’s seat to lose, based on where there are outstanding results. Ossoff has declared victory. If it comes to pass, he will have beaten a member of a local political dynasty (he is a cousin of Sonny Perdue, the former governor and the outgoing Agriculture secretary), and overcome a narrow House loss a few years back. All eyes will be on Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia this year, perhaps the last Blue Dog Democrat of national relevance in elected politics, and the likely swing vote in unified national, Democratic government.
Both Senate results are within a percent or so, but political races are binary affairs; only one woman or man can be seated. And there are a couple, swift and clear implications for the GOP, especially its establishment, which apparently just forfeited two Senate seats.
The first is that this will not be a new age of McConnell and the old guard. The majority leader — soon to be minority leader, or out of leadership in entirety — showed the limits of both his political and policy instincts these last two months. McConnell gambled that he could humor the gadfly effort by President Trump and his acolytes to futilely challenge the election results, but then call the game after the Electoral College voted in December. But you can’t get half pregnant. Because Trump and the renegade team, hardly a political or legal A-team, that he had leading the challenges was not fundamentally serious about overturning the result, the Electoral College vote was a moot data point.
Trump, for reasons of brand preservation and personal mentality, was never going to concede this election. So, McConnell’s attempt to split the baby did not end in Solomonic compromise, but rather in stark defeat. The irony here is that if McConnell had actually acted, politically anyway, like the Washington creature his right-wing detractors deride, he might have saved the day. That is, if he had declared Joe Biden the winner in November, and set off a chain reaction among Republican officials that made Trump look much more like a sore loser, even to the faithful. It might have boxed Trump in. It might have deprived him of news cycles. Maybe.
Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest, observes: “After the calamity in Georgia, the battle between the populist and establishment wings in the GOP is likely to resemble the bloody climax of the popular South Korean upstairs-downstairs film ‘Parasite.’ McConnell and Co. are about to discover that it’s too late to drive the insurgents back into the basement.”
If the Trump wing was wrong on recent electoral history, the McConnell wing was even wronger on policy. Apparently, voters in Georgia, a state that should safely be in the GOP column if they are to compete nationally, were unimpressed with McConnell and the establishment’s indignant closing message. That is, that Americans’ desire for $2000 stimulus checks was nothing but rank greed, while making it clear that quibbling with any facet of military spending is unpatriotic. The closing debates of December — on the latest Coronavirus relief package, and the override of President Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act — provided a glimpse of how the Senate GOP would act as a counterbalance to Biden.
It wasn’t pretty. And voters have declined to reward them.
It should be noted that certain tactics were not rewarded, either. Sen.-elect Warnock was portrayed as nothing short of an anti-Semite in parts of the press, for previous criticisms of the Israeli government.
“The question wasn’t whether Mr. Warnock believed Israel is ‘an apartheid state’ but whether he believed, in common with the international left for generations, that Israel systematically brutalizes innocent Palestinians. He does believe that,” Barton Swaim wrote in the WSJ in December. So do I, though I’m unsure that makes me a member of the “international left.” Warnock ran ahead of Ossoff, feted as more moderate. Republicans hoping to re-run the dubious playbook utilized in Britain against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — that is, to conflate any reasoned skepticism toward the government of the state of Israel, the existence of which both Corbyn and Warnock support, with disqualifying bigotry — might reconsider whether voters actually care in a post-Coronavirus America hurting for solutions.
“It’s not conceptually impossible for the GOP to incorporate [Make America Great Again]-type political goals without Trump’s general nuttiness and inattention to actual governance,” Scott McConnell, founder editor of The American Conservative, told me. “But it will require real talent from politicians who haven’t yet demonstrated it. At least such efforts will be aided by internecine battles between Democratic neoliberals and an energized left, which will be vicious.”
“The GOP has no chance of revival by a return to Romney-style country-clubism,” McConnell said. “And Trump himself is finished.”
“Trump did not win the presidency in 2016 simply because he had a cameo in Home Alone 2 and an uncanny talent for Twitter,” Julius Krein writes in The Guardian. “He also outlined a wide-ranging, if inchoate, critique of the bipartisan policy consensus that had dominated American politics since the end of the cold war: a failed combination of ‘neoliberal’ economics at home and military adventurism abroad.”
Krein says: “The glaring underestimation of Trump in the past and probable overestimation of his prospects today actually stem from the same error: the belief that Trump’s political appeal rests mainly on his personality cult, not on any association with a certain set of policy arguments.”
The Democrats will now rule Washington. But the reality of pandemic life will belie the reality of American political life. Unlike the fanfare that greeted the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, Joe Biden will not address large, adoring crowds in two weeks. Hard-left policies, from destroying contract work, to reinstituting a heedless affirmative action policy, were shot down by voters in places as progressive as California, the supermajority of whose voters went for Biden. The Democrats are winning by default, not acclamation. The heart of a failing country remains ripe for capture.
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