The latest brouhaha dominating the D.C. political scene—one that, naturally, has nothing to do with policy or governance—spotlights the leadership deficit between the Democrats and Republicans. As House Democrats deal with an internal struggle between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the four loudmouth freshmen who’ve become known as “the Squad,” Donald Trump has injected himself into the situation with racist invective to stir things up. That culminated last week at a rally in North Carolina wherein he called out Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, a former Somali refugee, and the crowd responded with chants of “Send her back!”
Both parties have responded with remarkable party discipline, but that is good news for only one of them. Republicans have settled into the salt mines for their new existence as promoters for Donald Trump (only four Republicans and Justin Amash voted for a non-binding resolution condemning racist tweets from the president), Speaker Nancy Pelosi has worked to curb the worst instincts—or at least the most politically dangerous ones—of her young elected officials. Republicans would be wise to observe her long game. Ages and many news cycles ago (a.k.a., last week), conservative headlines screamed about her brewing fight with the more fringe members of the Democrat party and the impending crackup. Ridiculous.
Her handling of “the Squad”—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Omar —is only the latest example of the serious, sober work she has done to keep her party from taking the exit for Crazytown. To be sure, Pelosi is no centrist, but she also knows the boundaries of responsible politics. In contrast to Pelosi’s leadership, GOP leaders faced down a similar fight with their trademark amoeba-like spinal fortitude.
The result? Hordes of cranks. Once upon a time, GOP party leadership blocked and tackled the fringe. Famously, Bill Buckley and Senator Barry Goldwater, among others, chased the John Birch Society (JBS) conspiracists from the conservative movement. But, since 2010, when the Conservative Political Action Committee welcomed them back into the fold, the CPAC straw poll, which promoted the careers of Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, George H.W. Bush, and Mitt Romney, has chosen a member of the Paul family (John Birch Society co-religionists both) five out seven times.
That was the same year that the Republican National Committee elevated future White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus from general counsel to the chairman, and it was the year before Donald Trump addressed CPAC for the first time. In other words, GOP leadership began the pathetic practice of excusing crackpottery as whimsical passion and striking a symbiotic relationship with it for the purpose of fueling their careerism long before Trump descended the golden staircase in 2015.
Meanwhile, Pelosi’s Democrats lived a different tale She helped end Howard “the Scream” Dean’s tenure as DNC chairman after angling for his scalp for years. Her sticktoitiveness paid off. He was last seen endorsing Hillary Clinton and joining the board of Tilray, the cannabis conglomerate.
Her treatment of Dean had less to do with loyalty (Trump’s singular obsession) and more to do with branding. Ranting lunacy does not sell well to future generations because of free association.
Here’s where the Republicans can learn from her: Put yourself in the shoes of an eager college student who cares deeply about, say, pro-life advocacy and is looking for a political home. The pro-life cause is serious business—literally a matter of life and death. Do you throw your lot in with the Democrats, who have an appalling record on pro-life policy, but with whom you may be able to move the needle even the tinyist amount because they debate with their indoor voices? Or are you going to put your passion for life in the hands of GOP godhead and world-beating douchecanoe Seb Gorka, whose only care in life seems to be appearing on Fox News as often as possible?
Maybe you are a budding muscular internationalist or democracy advocate. Will you throw your lot behind the party that seems (maybe) to have gotten religion on Russia or instead join the party that elevates ingenue Jacks-of-no-trade like Jared to tackle the thorniest geopolitical problems?
Or maybe you’re fiscally responsible! Neither party is any more, so that issue will boil down to a beauty pageant. Who wins, Barack Obama or Donald Trump Jr., using his dadbod to sell Trump gear, including $1.50 Trump-branded drinking straws (really)?
The rot is the natural result of placing power over policy. Remember Trump’s interview during the 2015 primaries when he said that women who have abortions should face “some form of punishment?” No serious pro-life advocate, no matter how passionate, believes that, but it was obvious why Trump said it. He’s had had no life experience with pro-life advocates. He simply projected what he believed Park Avenue liberals thought pro-lifers believed. Which should have made it all the more obvious that he was gaslighting America with the pro-life advocates’ passion so that he could to elevate himself and his clan.
After ritual criticism, GOP leadership fell into line behind him. They coveted his voters, even if they were cranks, more than they felt the need to protect the honor of pro-lifers.
What future, politically active young pup wants to sustain that decay with their excitement and energy, much less defend the daily outrage that Trump stumbles into or manufactures?
Meanwhile, Pelosi has a bead on real life. She tends the Democrats’ garden so that it produces grownups—grownups who contrast sharply with characters like Gorka, who oozes the vibe of the junior college student who flaunts his Mustang at his former high school where he ate lunch by himself everyday.
What seems more likely? Trump will unearth enough outcasts to move the policy ball forward on a broad spectrum of issues, or he is assembling a pyramid of self-interested grifters? By shouting down the Gorkas, Pelosi is making the bet that the passionate and socially adjusted far outnumber the insecure outcasts. And that will lead to policy victories.
Pelosi’s bet on indoor voices worries Trump. It is no accident that he is using his strategic racism to keep the narrative focused on the exact same people whom Pelosi is trying to discipline. To paraphrase former President Obama, if she is successful, the arc of history will favor the Democrats. Republicans should spend some time away from their ephemeral existence of rationalizing Trump to build a defense against Nancy Pelosi’s long game.