Michael Thurston: Republican Party ‘unfit to participate in government’

  • Peter Matlon, a resident of Washington, holds up a protest sign for commuters to see on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Trump International Hotel in Washington, Wednesday morning, Oct. 7, 2020. The Vietnam War veteran normally likes canvass door-to-door during elections but was forced change his tactics because of the COVID-19 pandemic.   AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined from left by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, fields questions from reporters about an impeachment trial in the Senate after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced House Democrats are pushing ahead with formal charges against President Donald Trump saying he has put U.S. elections and national security at risk, at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 10, 2019. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Published: 10/23/2020 1:06:28 PM

On Sunday, Oct. 18, The New York Times devoted its Sunday Review section to the case for Donald Trump’s unfitness for the office of the presidency. This is all good as far as it goes (Trump is indeed unfit, on all the grounds the Times covered and more, to be president of the United States), but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. In the coming election, the American voters must make clear not only that Trump is unfit, but also that the Republican Party is unfit to participate in government.

The “norm erosion” about which so-called Never Trump Republicans have clutched their pearls over the last four years is not limited to, and did not begin with, Donald Trump. Months before the 2016 election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused, with no foundation in the Constitution, the law or the rules or conventions of the U.S. Senate, to undertake the “advise and consent” function for presidential appointments to the Supreme Court, denying the eminently qualified Judge Merrick Garland his opportunity to be confirmed and denying the democratically elected president his right to appoint justices to the Court. The norm? Presidents appoint, senators agree or not, hearings are held, votes are taken, appointees are confirmed (or not).

McConnell went beyond the erosion of this norm and blew it apart wholesale. And his fellow Republican senators happily went along. Indeed, all norms of bipartisan respect for the office of the presidency and its occupant fell by the wayside when Republicans confronted President Barack Obama. One has only to remember U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst (shouting “You lie!”) as Obama delivered the details of his health care proposal to Congress in 2009.

Throughout the eight years of George W. Bush’s insistent mendacity (WMD in Iraq, anyone?), no such breach of decorum (however richly deserved) occurred. And the Republicans repeatedly refused to compromise on matters previously routinely agreed upon by the parties (e.g. increases to the debt ceiling to keep the nation’s credit solid). Even when Obama offered concessions anathema to his own base in budget negotiations, Republicans refused, preferring to shut down the government.

But Republican intransigence and departure from conventions of bipartisan governance predated Obama’s election. Perhaps the best starting point for the party’s descent into unfitness for governing is the Newt Gingrich-led House majority of the mid-1990s. In the party’s rhetoric during the Clinton administration, we see the abandonment of such norms as simply recognizing one’s political opponents as fellow citizens with the country’s interests at heart.

Instead, Gingrich and company demonized Democrats as un-American, calling them traitors and likening them to Hitler and Mussolini (not on Facebook, but on the floor of the House). Under the House Republicans, we saw the weaponization of impeachment as the extension of a sense that any non-Republican president was simply illegitimate. By 2008, the delegitimization of the opposition was explicitly argued by the Republican vice-presidential candidate when Sarah Palin separated “real Americans” in the nation’s rural areas and small towns from the rest of (most of) us.

The list could go on and on, but I’ll conclude with two norms the violation of which truly threaten our participatory democracy and civil society. The first is consistency of rules and procedures, the idea that, whoever is in power, the same rules apply. Recall, for example, McConnell’s justification for denying Judge Garland a confirmation hearing: The presidential election (six months away) was too close, and the American people should be able to influence the next Supreme Court selection.

At the time, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said that this rule would apply even if the current president were a Republican. Now? With the election less than a month away, the Republican Senate will confirm a justice appointed to fill a vacancy. Consistency? Principle? The current Republican Party has neither. And, second, the party has spent a generation violating the fundamental requirement in a democracy that the voters choose their representatives rather than the other way around. They have gutted voting rights protections, micromanaged redistricting to build electoral advantages, explicitly and implicitly suppressed the vote and denied the franchise to legitimate voters, all to permanently enshrine minority rule.

You don’t have to take my word for any of this, by the way. Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has been documenting and arguing for years the dangerous unwillingness to compromise that has defined the Republican Party. Trump is not an aberration in this context; he is merely the undisciplined id of the party, too stupid or uncouth (or both) to know not to say the quiet part out loud. Corrupted from within, bent on the rule of the few, beholden to an extremist base and antipathetic to democracy itself, the party is unfit to participate in government at any level. It should be sent to its room for the next four years to think about what it has done.

Michael Thurston is a resident of Florence.




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