What’s next for the Republican Party?

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With a fair amount of Republican infighting this week, there's been more speculation than is really healthy about what will happen to the party should it do badly in the election three months from now. In part, this is simply what happens to members of a party when they're losing, perhaps combined with frustration over a policy challenge they're at a loss to address and, let's not forget, the short tempers that many of us are feeling at this point in the pandemic. 

But I don't think it tells us much about how the party would deal with a loss along the lines that the polls are currently indicating — one that would be even larger than Barack Obama's defeat of John McCain 12 years ago. To be clear: We don't know the election outcome yet, and circumstances this year are certainly unusual. But it's probably fair to say that President Donald Trump is an underdog at this point and that Democrats could quite possibly win in a landslide. 

What would happen next?

After a round of recriminations, the next two years are reasonably predictable: Republicans would react to unified Democratic government exactly the way they did in 1993 and 2009 — and arguably in 1977 and 1961 as well. They'd mount as much obstruction as they could in Congress, while charging the incoming administration with malfeasance. Outside of Washington, expect more Tea Party-type rallies, blaming Democrats for the high levels of unemployment they inherited and claiming their plans are socialist overreach. Expect partisans to rile up resentment the way they did in those years as well (Kevin Drum had an excellent item on this back in the Tea Party days). There might be some talk about the long-term demographic challenges the party faces, but most will soon conclude that their main mistake was not being conservative enough. There will be no serious discussions within the party of the real problem: They can't govern. 

(Want to make the case that Democrats reacted that way in 2017? Fair enough! I could point to some important differences, but there are clear similarities, certainly when it comes to legislative strategy.)

The reason this is easy to predict is because, as the party sees it, the Bob Dole Republicans in 1993-1994 and the Mitch McConnell Republicans in 2009-2010 were totally successful. Compromise is a trap, in this view; the way to recover is to oppose the Democrats flat-out. 

Whether that accurately reflects history is a more complicated question. Bill Clinton's presidency was badly harmed by his own mistakes in the transition and honeymoon periods, and he didn't really get the hang of the office for at least a year. The 2010 case is more complicated, but sharply rising unemployment in the early months of Obama's presidency was surely a major factor in Democratic midterm losses. Some would argue, too, that Democrats did a poor job of choosing popular policies with clear pay-offs to voters. It's not clear what Republican opposition added to that.

But what matters is what lessons politicians learn from history, not whether those lessons are accurate. And that means the opportunity for Republicans to start changing things isn't going to be created by a blowout in 2020; it's going to take either Democrats holding their majorities in 2022, or winning another presidential election, or perhaps both. Even then there's no guarantee that the party will be able to think rationally about what's happened. 

The unfortunate truth is that the dysfunctions that define the current Republican Party make it very difficult for them to govern competently, but don't do much to prevent them from taking advantage of opportunities when things go wrong with Democrats in office. My guess is that this situation is not all that likely to change going forward. The problems in the party didn't start with Trump, and they aren't going to go away if Trump is defeated.

1. Norm Ornstein on administering the November election.

2. Matthew Green at Mischief of Faction on what the infighting tells us about the House Freedom Caucus.

3. Heather Williams at the Monkey Cage on last week's Twitter hack.

4. Seth Masket on "moderate" Republican senators.

5. James Wallner on Senate procedure and how lawmakers work for leverage.

6. Bennett Fleming-Wood and Brian Schaffner on public opinion about the economy and the pandemic.

7. Leah Litman on Trump and the census.

8. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Shannon O'Neil on the possibility of a revived wave of Mexican migration.

9. And Fred Kaplan calls for breaking up the Department of Homeland Security

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