I don’t know who is going to win the election. I write this on the fourth anniversary of the Billy Bush Access Hollywood tape. At the time House Speaker Paul Ryan set the tone for the GOP leadership’s response by condemning Trump’s comments: ‘I am sickened by what I heard today. Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified. I hope Mr Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests.’
Ryan concluded his statement by withdrawing from an event the next day with Trump in Wisconsin. Mitch McConnell followed: ‘These comments are repugnant, and unacceptable in any circumstance. As the father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere, and take full responsibility for the utter lack of respect for women shown in his comments on that tape.’
Once again, Republican leaders found themselves confronting a hostile press over their nominee’s behavior: the tweets, the antics at rallies, the mocking of disabled reporters and innuendos of violence against protesters. But come November 2016, it was Ryan, McConnell and the GOP who found themselves on the other end of Republican voters’ ire.
In 2016, the voters wanted the GOP’s leadership to fight alongside Trump against what they felt were dishonest attacks by Hillary Clinton and her media allies. They felt bullied from the two previous election cycles in which they perceived, accurately or not, their party had chosen weak candidates in John McCain, who Trump slandered regularly and mercilessly, and Mitt Romney. But the GOP leadership and Republicans in Congress feared that Trump’s erratic behavior and inability to stay on message would cause a catastrophic general election loss.
Trump was trailing in national polling. It appeared the GOP was headed off the cliff, and towards a reckoning: how to explain such a loss? But Donald Trump defied the media on both the left and the right and the jaded professional consultant class in his own party, and won the election. He swept every battleground state including Democratic strongholds in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Republicans who had come out against Trump during the campaign were now at the mercy of their voters.
It wasn’t a fluke and it wasn’t because of fevered Russia conspiracies. Anti-Trump consultants and pundits in the GOP were now apostates. The shock-talk culture of AM radio was squarely in charge. Like it or not, Trump was now the face of the Republican party and, more importantly, the country. Now Ryan and McConnell had to find a delicate balancing act with a new president who wouldn’t hesitate to turn his Twitter army on them. In the end, kicking and screaming, they had no choice but to fall into line with him, and with the will of their voters.
The general feeling in the GOP was that Trump could be reined in. His crazier impulses would fall by the wayside in favor of traditional governance, and he would become a backstop, signing long-promised GOP legislation on tax reform, immigration and healthcare. The last four years have, however, been anything but stable — apart, that is, from the courts. Now with an election only a month away, the GOP again find themselves again staring at a reckoning.
Once again, the President is trailing in polls and in key demographics. Once again, he has delivered a scatterbrained debate performance. And this time his COVID-19 diagnosis has turned the West Wing into a petri dish. Though Trump surely could be reelected — as we learned four years ago, anything can happen — right now it’s Joe Biden’s race.
Yet there seems to be an odd sense of calm on the right as we head into the election. Sure, the President’s base is fired up with its flag-waving MAGA armadas and monster truck parades. But the party as a whole doesn’t seem to be panicking. This is because of one simple reason: Amy Coney Barrett.
Make no mistake: Barrett will be confirmed and seated either shortly before the election or in the lame-duck session. No ‘Resistance’ or media-driven delay tactics relating to the President’s COVID diagnosis will change this. It’s inevitable.
Barrett will certainly tilt the Supreme Court toward originalism in the mold of her mentor Antonin Scalia. In the event of a Biden administration, she could act as a bulwark against questionable executive actions. If the Republican party can hold onto a slim majority in the Senate as well, Joe Biden’s first-term agenda is effectively dead. He can spend his days swiveling around in the Oval Office before retiring.
After the past four years of having to defend morning rage tweets and random sound bites, that may be exactly what Republicans and a large chunk of their voters want, though they would never admit it. If Republicans suffer heavy losses this election cycle — losing the White House and the Senate, with the risk of a Democratic majority moving to end the filibuster and expand the Supreme Court — the move to confirm Barrett would still have been worth it. You don’t suppress your duly granted majority power when given the opportunity, because of something the opposing party says they might do down the road. Mitch McConnell knows this.
The Republican base believe that the Barack Obama/Joe Biden presidency ran roughshod over the Constitution. Offered a deal — three Supreme Court Justices in exchange for one Donald Trump term — their base would overwhelmingly take it. They might have to. The Barrett confirmation will soften a Trump defeat, for him and them. Trump could walk out of the White House on January 20 a conquering hero to the party and the base, despite having been his own worst enemy.
The devil’s bargain that traditional Republicans struck with the bombastic president will have paid off in spades. Trump’s three conservative justices will tilt the Court for a generation. His concession speech, should he condescend to give one, would become another of his notorious rallies. He would leave office one of the most consequential one-term presidents in modern American history (sorry Mr President, John Adams you are not). The courts will be his legacy, and the GOP’s reward for tolerating their non-traditional president and defending him through his impeachment.
It shouldn’t be like this, but it is. The fate of legislation and government should not come down to a seat or two on the nation’s highest court. But everything changed with the Obama presidency. Obama vowed to work around a Republican Congress when they acted as a just and constitutional check on his executive powers. Conservatives see the Supreme Court as the only thing stopping the unconstitutional exercise of executive power from the Oval Office, on everything from healthcare to conscience restrictions put on religious organizations, or even state lockdown orders from over-zealous Democratic governors such as Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer or New York’s Andrew Cuomo.
If this were not the case, and Democrats were truly interested in fixing the legislative authority in Congress, they themselves would not be now threatening to pack the Supreme Court, should the opportunity arise.
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