As the 2017 legislative season opens, even conservatives wary of Donald Trump are looking forward to passing parts of their long-running political wish lists. Tax reform, regulatory relief, and the rollback of Obamacare are among their priorities. While Trump’s opponents in the GOP are politely papering over challenges to come, including his immigration schemes and trade-war plans, House Republicans fumbled badly this week on the “reform” of the Office of Congressional Ethics. They demonstrated a remarkable lack of political acuity and ran themselves into a pincer movement with the Democrats on one side and Donald Trump on the other.
The House ethics process may need reform, but the inability of the GOP to see the giant shitstorm coming their way from a plan easily cast as removing ethical oversight from Congress is stunning. It makes me wonder if Victory Disease hasn’t already set in.
In politics, Victory Disease comes when a majority believes their position is so secure and immune from challenge that they forget the lessons of the past and can’t imagine an outcome that isn’t in their favor. Neither party is inoculated against it.
Republicans should hope the ethics mess isn’t a sign of things to come. The rollout was tone-deaf and clumsy, the initial defense was worse, and the GOP handed the otherwise prostrate and hapless Democrats, as well as the media, the first attack issue of the new administration. Some Republicans are spinning that the issue is too inside-baseball to gain traction, but they forget that the American people still loathe the institution of Congress with the fire of a million suns. Trump’s current popularity doesn’t transfer to them.
The speed of the backlash seemed to catch House Republicans by surprise, and the tossed-off “It’s just the Rules package” answer screamed insular smugness. The perception of endemic public corruption, of congressional immunity, and of the House members weakening ethics accountability exists. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. It’s there, and in our current political moment, facts are so pre-Trump.
Historical memory is sadly short. Did the current GOP learn nothing from the wave elections of 1974, 1994, and 2008? In each case, the perception of corruption, ethical blindness, and rules-for-thee-not-for-me helped shape the political battlefield in favor of the challenger party.
In 1974, Democrats gained 49 House seats and four Senate seats. It wasn’t just the Watergate scandal that drove Democratic wins, but the sense that Republicans had defended corruption and criminality in the White House. The Watergate babies are largely gone now, but the Democratic Party cohort swept in by that election endured for 20 long years.
In 1994, the Republicans recaptured the congressional majorities by winning eight seats in the Senate and 54 in the House. Bill Clinton’s health-care overreach and his character were certainly campaign issues, but Newt Gingrich used the House banking and post-office scandals as wedges to open it to Republican leadership after decades as the minority party. The perception of congressmen being allowed to kite checks was visceral, relatable, and infuriating to voters.
In 2008, Mark Foley and Jack Abramoff were poster boys for a Republican institution in which the contrast between the party’s stated values and its actual behavior was painfully stark. How stark? The Democrats picked up eight Senate seats and 21 House seats as well as the White House. Members of Congress facing the challenge of repealing Obamacare have 2008’s House and Senate leadership to blame. They didn’t understand how bad their behavior and their unwillingness to check their own wayward members looked to everyday Americans.
In each of these elections other salient factors obtained—inflation and economic crisis in 1974, Clinton’s health-care overreach in 1994, and the Iraq War in 2008. But in each case, the perception that the party in power was playing fast and loose with ethics and corruption played a catalyzing role. This year, leading with a “reform” that looks like it was meant to make Congress meaningfully less accountable might not have been their objective, but it certainly was the outcome.
If the Democratic Party wasn’t almost entirely and comically bereft of political talent and instincts, it could be playing holy hell with the GOP this week. Events in the last few days show how Trump’s win is causing a kind of political disorientation that a smarter and more agile opposition could exploit.
The hilarious capper to the ethics mess was the ease with which Trump threw his GOP “allies” under the bus. Trump may be ethically vacant and morally bankrupt, but he’s got a keen nose for the populism that drove him into office; his tweets sent a wave of utter panic through the House caucus. The walkback set a terrible precedent: House leadership should make policies and decisions without living in fear of Trump’s tweeted tantrums. The operative word is “should,” but they’re going to have to touch the hot stove a few more times before the lesson takes.
The populist fury of the Trumpentariat isn’t reserved for liberals alone; more and more, it will be focused on Republicans who fail to toe the line when He issues his commands and diktats. The rage monster machine of Fox News, talk radio and Trump-centric social media needs something to feed on, and if House Republicans think Trump and his media allies won’t sacrifice them for their own satisfaction and ratings, they’re not paying attention.
If I were advising Paul Ryan, I’d add strengthening the House ethics rules to the 2017 to-do list. It’s cheap political insurance. Meaningful reform also happens to be an alien concept in Washington: the right thing to do.