The more likely it becomes that Donald Trump will win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, the stronger the urge among Republican insiders and pundits to blame outsiders for the developments. Introspection is difficult, awkward, and sometimes painful, and GOP partisans are understandably reluctant to recognize the crises within the party that contributed to Trump’s rise.
But the drive to hold Democrats responsible for Republican voters’ choice in campaign frontrunners has quietly made the transition from amusing to desperate.
Last week, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) argued that Trump’s rise is President Obama’s fault – if Democrats hadn’t chosen a mature and capable leader, Republicans wouldn’t have felt instinctively obligated to rally behind a childish fool.
Today, Josh Kraushaar, a conservative writer at National Journal, takes the “don’t blame Republicans for the leading Republican candidate” gambit in a direction that’s equally foolish. The headline reads, “How Al Franken Paved the Way for Donald Trump.”
Looking for a culprit to blame for all the polarization, gridlock, and bad feelings in Washington? Point to Sen. Al Franken. No, that’s not a joke.
Well, perhaps “joke” should be considered a subjective term.
As Kraushaar sees it, had Franken lost his close 2008 race, Democrats would have been “forced to negotiate with Republicans” on measures such as health care reform, which would have created a more cooperative and less toxic political climate. By bringing access to affordable health care to 20 million Americans, the argument goes, Obama sparked a political backlash.
Kraushaar concluded, “That’s where Al Franken comes in. If it weren’t for 312 voters in Minnesota, Obama’s ambitions would at least have been curtailed by legislative realities, and the trajectory of his presidency would have looked much different. Franken, the first insult comic to get elected to the Senate, circuitously paved the way for the rise of a much different type of entertainer – Donald J. Trump.”
I should concede that I’m only passively familiar with Kraushaar’s work. It’s entirely possible that the National Journal writer is relatively new to the politics beat and he simply doesn’t recall many of the political developments of 2009 and 2010, perhaps because he was focused on covering something else.
But before anyone take Kraushaar’s thesis seriously, let’s clarify a few details.
Just as a factual matter, while Franken’s narrow election in 2008, which was resolved after a lengthy recount and legal fight in 2009, pushed the Democratic majority to 60, it was the radicalization of GOP politics that forced then-Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to switch parties three months before the Minnesota race was resolved.
Despite this, President Obama practically begged Republicans to work with him anyway on health care reform. As those who followed the reform fight carefully can attest, senators like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins spent about as much time in the West Wing as White House staffers did, with Obama and his team pleading with them to help finalize a bipartisan reform package.
Indeed, in the summer of 2009, liberals were incensed by health care delays when Obama agreed to put the entire initiative on hold in order to allow Max Baucus’ “Gang of Six” – featuring three Democrats and three Republicans – to try to work out a bipartisan agreement. One GOP member of the “gang,” Wyoming’s Mike Enzi, later admitted that he was negotiating in bad faith; he never intended to support any reform law; and he only participated in negotiations as part of a stalling tactic.
In other words, when Kraushaar argues that the president made a conscious and deliberate choice to bypass negotiations with Republicans over health care, that’s demonstrably ridiculous.
What’s more, the entire thesis is rooted in almost alarming ignorance. Kraushaar would have readers believe that congressional Republicans were open to outreach and ready to work with the Democratic White House on incremental steps towards progressive goals. Again, anyone who covered politics at all in the early part of the Obama era knows how profoundly wrong this is.
As we’ve discussed before, literally the night of the president’s first inaugural, GOP leaders met and decided on “unyielding opposition” to the White House’s plans. “If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” now-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said at the time. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”
By 2010, now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) freely admitted that his top priority had nothing to do with jobs or the economy: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” McConnell acknowledged, more than once, that he demanded total party unity in opposing every White House proposal – even if Obama offered to make concessions, even if it meant Republicans having to oppose ideas that they supported – as a way of preventing Democrats from taking bipartisan successes to the American electorate.
Kraushaar’s piece acknowledges none of this. Instead, it pretends that the president was responsible for creating an atmosphere of hardball, partisan tactics.
I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic. I understand that conservatives are embarrassed by the Republican frontrunner. Though I can’t relate personally, I imagine there must be a strong urge to lash out and look for ways to blame partisan foes.
But Trump’s rise in GOP politics isn’t Obama’s fault. It’s not the result of health care reform or the economic package that rescued the country from the Great Recession. It’s not about Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or Al Franken.
Rather, Trump’s successes thus far are about the state of the Republican Party in 2016, and the groundwork GOP leaders have laid throughout the Obama era. Blaming Democrats might be emotionally satisfying to the right, but that doesn’t make it true.