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Florida congressman Matt Gaetz’s widening sex scandal is just the latest in a string of humiliating moments for a party overtaken by grifters and conspiracy-loving cranks. Gaetz and House colleagues like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Jordan may be media power players in the new, Trump-obsessed GOP, but all of that sleaze and QAnon craziness is exhausting Republican voters.
Republican obstructionism sent the party down a dark and destructive path. Without any institutional values to slow their slouch toward Gomorrah, the party is incapable of winning back voters they’ve lost. Only a quarter of voters now firmly identify as Republicans, scraping Gallup’s all-time low of 22 percent. Meanwhile, Democratic Party identification surged to its highest level in nearly a decade. Once reliable conservative suburban voters fled the GOP in 2020, aghast at Trump’s slimy conduct and a Republican Party that openly refused to govern. There’s no evidence those suburbanites are giving their former party a second chance.
Democrats—especially obstructor-in-chief Joe Manchin— should internalize that lesson. Instead, they seem to be confusing self-sabotaging positions with being the mythological “adult in the room.”
Of course, the adults in the GOP room all ended up bowing to Trump, or leaving, and the result was a party that looked and acted almost exactly like Trump—down to his unfavorable polling and moral baggage. Millions of conservative voters simply gave up trying to rationalize the constant carnival of impeachable conduct. Fewer Americans described themselves as Republicans during Trump’s term than during any prior GOP administration since Gallup began phone polling. That number is still falling.
As the post-Trump party sends Americans a clear message that MAGA is the new conservative orthodoxy, even lifelong Republicans are openly questioning if the GOP’s current brand can be salvaged. It can’t. Not only is the GOP bereft of anything approaching policy ideas, as their lockstep pre-emptive rejection of President Joe Biden’s popular infrastructure plan confirms, they’re also proving wildly incapable at picking winning messaging fights.
The fight to delay and derail Biden’s sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure plan will be devastating for the GOP, and for any Democrats who try to block urgently needed spending on roads, bridges and ports. In this case, the Republican instinct to block legislative progress also spits in the faces of the nearly 80 percent of Americans who support Biden’s proposal. By stamping their feet and refusing to work with Democrats, Republicans are prioritizing Trump’s anti-Democrat fetish instead of the roughly one in five Republican voters who support infrastructure spending.
In the months since voters tossed Trump out, senior Republican leaders have leapt forward on the wrong side of nearly every pressing policy issue, when they’re not wasting time and political capital hallucinating about Dr. Seuss’ cancellation or screaming about how Major League Baseball is now a communist front operation. A constellation of GOP elected officials and conservative pressure groups united in opposition to immigration reform even before Biden was sworn in as president. That’s red meat for the MAGA base, but it puts Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans on the wrong side of the 70 percent of Americans and nearly half of Republican voters who say they support an earned pathway to citizenship.
Nowhere are the GOP’s self-inflicted wounds more apparent than in their plainly losing fight to defend voter suppression laws rolling out in red states across the country. Not only have Republicans’ strongman tactics alienated major corporate allies who make up the backbone of the GOP donor class, they’ve also created a rare moment of bipartisan solidarity among regular voters. Only a third of Americans support efforts like those underway in Georgia to systematically strip voting rights from communities of color.
Yiddish, appropriately, has a word to both describe and condemn this kind of directionless wandering: luftmenschen, men of the air. The word describes a particularly grating kind of person, someone with no productive occupation or practical skills, an airhead unconcerned with practical problems. Nothing could better describe a GOP more focused on delivering viral Twitter memes than on repairing the crumbling bridges and dangerous roads most of their constituents use on a daily basis.
The GOP was conquered and pillaged by self-serving luftmenschen after its capitulation to Trump, but Democrats’ stronger institutional values are no guarantee of protection from a similar fate. Sen. Joe Manchin, perhaps the Democrats’ leading luftmensch, outraged progressives with a Washington Post op-ed in which he stridently refused to ever eliminate or weaken the filibuster. Krysten Sinema doubled down on her support for the filibuster as well, outraging Arizona progressives who feel misled by the one-time Green Party politician’s sudden refusal to advance Biden’s broad agenda.
“The political games playing out in the halls of Congress only fuel the hateful rhetoric and violence we see across our country right now,” Manchin writes, equating progressive critics of the filibuster with the violent far-right mobs responsible for the vast majority of rising political violence.
Manchin may frame his support for the filibuster as down-home centrist pragmatism, but it represents the same kind of ideology-over-reality thinking that sank the GOP. Manchin’s repeated calls for Congress to “get back to work” ring hollow when that work is blocked by Republican abuse of the filibuster.
Manchin’s ideological fantasy only works if he ignores that 60 percent of Americans find it ridiculous for a single Republican senator to stall the work of America’s entire legislative machinery. Democrats must ask who Manchin is representing when over half of the country supports a return to the talking filibuster. Manchin may frame his argument as one grounded in pragmatism and bipartisanship, but in reality his argument represents the single biggest roadblock to getting Congress working again.
Trump’s GOP has proven adept at building political coalitions that unify business and labor. Unfortunately for them, those coalitions are almost exclusively filled with their opponents. And with hucksters like Gaetz and Rep. Madison Cawthorn treating government as a springboard for a future career in right-wing cable news, the GOP has driven out the institutional knowledge necessary to change course in the face of Americans’ mounting demands that Republicans either start doing their jobs or step aside.
Democrats can’t save the GOP and they shouldn’t waste time or political capital trying. Far more important is preventing the outbreak of mindless obstructionism within our own party. Survey after survey and election after election shows the GOP paying a heavy cost for abandoning governing in favor of farming right-wing media outrage. If Democrats want to avoid that fate, it’s time to kill the filibuster and get to work.