Will anyone be left standing when the Republican circular firing squad runs out of ammunition? Or will everybody just reload and keep blasting away, leaving Democrats to clean up the bloody mess?
The political moment we’re living through is truly remarkable, but not in a good way. Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress, so we’re basically in their hands. But they have nothing approaching consensus on what they should be doing – and they have failed to show basic competence at doing much of anything.
This absurd situation was illustrated Thursday when House Speaker Paul Ryan, appearing on “CBS This Morning,” tried to explain why he wants to lead yet another suicide charge up Health Care Hill.
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Ryan said he worries that if Republicans don’t repeal the Affordable Care Act and pass some sort of replacement, then President Trump will “just go work with Democrats to try and change Obamacare and that’s not, that’s hardly a conservative thing. … If this Republican Congress allows the perfect to be the enemy of the good, I worry we'll push the president into working with Democrats. He’s been suggesting that as much.”
Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, usually a man of measured words, responded with a barbed tweet: “We have come a long way in our country when the speaker of one party urges a president NOT to work with the other party to solve a problem.”
Trump went on Twitter as well, primarily to lash out at the House GOP conservatives who helped scuttle the slapdash American Health Care Act that Ryan tried – and disastrously failed – to ram through last week: “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”
But which Republican agenda? The House majority wants ideological purity of the kind found in Ayn Rand novels and the writings of obscure Austrian economists. The Senate majority favors traditional conservative policies and seeks self-preservation. Trump seeks adulation, a crown of laurels and the strewing of rose petals at his feet.
The House looks hopeless. Republicans hold 241 seats, a massive majority – yet could not come close to mustering the 216 needed last week to approve the ill-fated health care bill. House Republicans passed about 60 measures to repeal all or part of Obamacare while Barack Obama was president – but now, with a Republican in the White House, can’t pass even one.
Ryan somehow acquired a reputation as a policy wonk but really is an ideologue, as shown by his comments Thursday. He worries less about whether policies work or not – whether, in this case, more people have health insurance – than whether policies fit his definition of “conservative” or “not conservative.” Also, he doesn’t seem to be very good at counting votes, which is a clear requirement in the House speaker job description.
To be fair, he does have the problem of the Freedom Caucus – a group of 30 to 40 House Republicans who are far to Ryan’s right, which puts them beyond the outer fringe. If politics were the solar system, they would be the Oort Cloud, out there past Pluto. It is hard to imagine any health care bill that is acceptable to both the Freedom Caucus and a majority of Americans.
The White House looks hopeless, too. Trump’s inner circle is like the Court of the Borgias, full of intrigue and backstabbing. And there have been plenty of opportunities for rivals to wield their knives: Advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, the “economic nationalists,” came under attack when Trump’s first, amateurish attempt at a Muslim travel ban got blocked by the courts. Chief of staff Staff Reince Priebus – like Ryan, part of the “Cheesehead Mafia” from Wisconsin – bore much of the blame for the health care debacle. Economic adviser Gary Cohn and his staff are derided by others as “the Democrats.” Jared Kushner is fortunate to have the Teflon coating that comes from being the boss’s son-in-law.
That leaves just two viable centers of power – Senate Republicans under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is nothing if not wily; and House Democrats under Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
It’s probably going to take Democratic votes to keep the government funded past April 28 and avoid a shutdown. Trump’s only path forward on health care, a problem he now owns, may indeed be working with the Democrats. When I saw her at the Capitol this week, Pelosi was in a surprisingly good mood.
Eugene Robinson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.