The GOP identity crisis

The Republican Party can’t pass Obamacare repeal, but it can nominate Roy Moore.

This is the state of the GOP in a nutshell. It is a party locked in mortal combat between an establishment that is ineffectual and unimaginative, and a populist wing that is ineffectual and inflamed.

Donald Trump’s ascendance created an identity crisis in the party that hasn’t been resolved, and the hope that it could be papered over with legislative accomplishments and signing ceremonies has come a cropper.

It’d be hard to design a primary fight more characteristic of the GOP’s current state than Luther Strange vs. Roy Moore.

There is nothing distinctive about Strange except his height, his name and the dubious circumstances of his appointment. He was the state attorney general investigating disgraced Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who ended up appointing him to the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions not long before Bentley resigned because of a sex scandal.

Since Strange would be a thoroughly adequate time-server, the establishment piled in behind him like it was trying to save Arthur Vandenberg.

As for Moore, the twice-former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court is to the judiciary what Joe Arpaio is to sheriffdom — neither was particularly good at their precise duties, but both had a knack for the theatrical, polarizing cause.

It isn’t shocking that Moore prevailed. Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell and Richard Mourdock all won primaries in 2010-2012 in less conservative states based on anti-establishment energy, although under a tea party/constitutionalist banner rather than a Trumpist/populist one.

It is an irony that in a race featuring a candidate as Trumpian as they come, Trump was on the other side. The president presumably won’t let that happen again.

The biggest loser in Alabama was Mitch McConnell. He is certainly the best Republican Senate leader in a generation. The conservative grass roots, though, has never been fond of Senate leaders who inevitably reflect the caution and process-obsession of the institution. The failure of Obamacare repeal has made him increasingly radioactive with Republicans nationally.

This sentiment is unlikely to be expressed in ways that make it easier to get anything done, as Moore’s victory proves. Flame-throwing and ill-informed, the presumptive next senator from Alabama is unlikely to make legislating his priority.

The result in Alabama will render Trump even more up for grabs. Is he going to simply move on and work with the congressional leadership on the next big priority, tax reform? Is he going to exercise the “Chuck and Nancy” option? Is he going to double down on his base? All of the above? Does he know?

Trump’s problem isn’t that he threw in with the establishment, as his most fervent supporters believe; it is that he threw in with an establishment that had no idea how to process his victory and integrate populism into the traditional Republican agenda.

One of the many causes of the failure of Obamacare repeal is that Republicans didn’t emphasize the economic interests of the working-class voters who propelled Trump to victory. Out of the gate, tax reform looks to have a similar problem — the Trumpist element is supposed to be a middle-class tax cut, but it’s not obvious that it delivers one.

This gets to a fundamental failing of the populists. The president and his backers haven’t thought through what a workable populist platform is besides inveighing against internal party enemies, igniting cable TV-friendly controversies and overinvesting in symbolic measures like the wall.

If the populists don’t like the results, they should take their own political project more seriously, if they are capable of it.

A success on taxes would provide some respite from the party’s internal dissension, yet the medium-term forecast has to be for more recrimination than governing. Whatever the core competency of the national Republican Party is at the moment, it certainly isn’t forging coherence or creating legislative achievements.

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