Against the Grain

Extreme Politics: Party Leaders Surrendering to the Fringe

Establishment Republicans have lost the civil war with their base, while Democratic leaders haven't so far put up a fight against their activists.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
July 13, 2018, 12:18 p.m.

This week’s list of head-snapping headlines—President Trump’s reckless threats damaging the NATO alliance, House Republicans undermining the Mueller investigation by holding a show trial against FBI operative Peter Strzok, and an increasingly desperate Democratic pressure campaign to prevent Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh from being confirmed—are reflective of a new political reality.

Responsible Republican voices have lost control within the Trump White House, and are unable to shape the agenda on the outside. Republicans are now fully the party of Trump, defending his increasingly erratic whims and tweets. Republicans looking to avert a costly trade war meekly passed a nonbinding resolution expressing support for free trade instead of using their clout to pressure the White House. Republicans aghast at Trump’s diplomatic dereliction privately express their worries, but have surrendered to the president’s “America first” will. Meanwhile, assurances from the GOP’s congressional leadership about the sanctity of the Mueller investigation are getting overwhelmed by a growing roster of rank-and-file Republicans looking to undermine the FBI’s credibility.

You can laugh at the GOP’s fecklessness, but at least the party has an establishment that has attempted (unsuccessfully) to steer a conventional course. Long before Trump arrived on the political scene, Republican leaders tried to prevent extreme candidates from emerging in primaries and wrote a report urging the party to moderate on immigration. In Trump’s first year in office, advisers effectively steered him towards appointing conservative judges and securing tax cuts in hopes of unifying a fractured party.

If the Republican establishment has proven incapable of shaping its party, some formerly reasonable members of the Democratic establishment are now eagerly surrendering to the whims of their own increasingly dogmatic base. The battle to block Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh—an eminently qualified choice, even embraced by reliably anti-Trump Republicans—is driving normally pragmatic Democrats batty. Even though they lack the votes to prevent Kavanaugh’s confirmation, party leaders are adopting tactics that will only undermine their chances of winning back power.

Former Hillary Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon, a Chuck Schumer alum who is leading outside efforts to block Kavanaugh’s confirmation, is adopting tactics normally associated with the party’s far-left activists. On Monday, he roasted Virginia senator (and Hillary Clinton’s running mate) Tim Kaine for merely expressing questions about the judge’s philosophy. “We already know the answers to these questions, Tim Kaine. Stop playing political games and help us #StopKavanaugh,” Fallon tweeted.

Even more alarmingly, Fallon called for any law professor or lawyer who dares praise Kavanaugh should effectively be banned from ever serving in a future Democratic White House. This hollow threat came after several of Kavanaugh’s liberal friends at Yale Law School wrote laudatory pieces about his character in national newspapers. “Progressives should keep a list of names of the sellouts at Yale and elsewhere who are right now trying to smooth a path for the overturning of Roe and the gutting of the New Deal. They should be unwelcome in future Democratic administrations,” Fallon wrote Thursday.

These are the type of tactics that suggest the rise of a more illiberal Left, unwilling to tolerate dissent or free thought—even if it’s in the Democratic Party’s best interest not to look like mindless obstructionists. The ability of the Democrats to win back power in the Senate rests entirely in the ability of red-state senators to survive tough reelection campaigns this November. Announcing you’re unwilling to hear out the nominee’s views in a hearing and threatening to purge Kavanaugh’s Democratic allies from the party is as self-destructive as it gets.

All told, this week’s developments paint an ominous picture about the political health of the country. Under Trump, both parties are moving to the ideological extremes, increasingly catering to the whims of radicalized bases. Republicans have all but surrendered to their antiestablishment forces after a decade-long war against the party’s populist grassroots. Against their base, it’s not yet clear whether Democratic leaders are willing to put up a fight.

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