The Missed Opportunities of the 2016 Election

UNEDITED photo from CPAC 2012 Mitch McConnell

All signs point to a win for Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016. State and national polls have swung heavily in her direction since Trump’s incompetent performance at the first presidential debate, followed by a sustained multi-week meltdown. Trump's most fitting, humiliation was perhaps being booed off the stage at the typically genial Al Smith Dinner.

Trump’s ongoing collapse is a cause for celebration to many. The man, by any reasonable standard, is abhorrent. He has untapped a well of resentment and prejudice that many liberal Americans failed to realize still existed. His candidacy has re-invigorated retrograde ideas and language that were thought to have been banished decades ago, and he has pulled American politics into a gutter that would have stunned the public even a cycle ago. 

The Clinton campaign has, of course, capitalized on his degeneracy. Campaigning on her behalf, President Obama zeroed in on Trump’s lack of basic decency. “Civility is on the ballot,” Obama said. “Tolerance is on the ballot. Courtesy is on the ballot. Honesty is on the ballot. Equality is on the ballot. Kindness is on the ballot.” On November 8, millions of Americans will vote for Hillary Clinton – or at least against Donald Trump – and be proud to have taken a stand against the coarsening of American politics and in favor of a tolerant, pluralist America.

If you’re tempted to celebrate this, please don’t. Instead be saddened that, in the 2016 election, the issues being litigated are whether America should be tolerant and kind. Be saddened that, instead of discussing climate change or income inequality, we’re confirming that it’s wrong to grope women without consent. Above all, be saddened that Trump’s ridiculous campaign has made the Obama-era GOP almost appear reasonable.

More than a few writers have connected the dots between Trump’s demagogic rhetoric and the dog-whistle politics leveraged by the GOP for decades. “The GOP played with fire, and it got burned,” so to speak; the Republicans spent the Obama administration stoking nativist resentment to win electoral majorities with which to push a pro-business agenda, and were caught on their heels when a full-throated nativist appeared and rode this resentment to the nomination.

In this telling, the GOP is like a town that spent the last decade powering itself with a complex nuclear reactor, but suddenly found itself unable to stop a runaway chain reaction.  This view unfortunately ignores just how much of a cesspool the down surrounding this reactor had become.

Take Senator Mike Lee from Utah.  Senator Lee, who took office in 2011, has long been repelled by Mr. Trump, saying the businessman “scares [him] to death.” In 2016, this counts as a strong stand from a sitting GOP congressman.  (Though the stand becomes less courageous in light of how little his state likes Mr. Trump.)  

But remember who Mike Lee is.  Soon after entering the chamber, Senator Lee co-founded the Senate Tea Party Caucus alongside Senators Rand Paul and Jim DeMint.  Among the things Senator Lee has declared unconstitutional are child labor laws, FEMA, the Violence Against Women Act, the FDA, Medicare and Medicaid. Senator Lee was one of the major antagonists of the debt ceiling crises of 2011 and 2013, in both cases voting against the eventual compromise bills. Senator Lee refused to accept an increase in the debt ceiling unless the U.S. enacted a Constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds majority to implement any tax increase, and that he would preferred America’s “house to come down” than see a failure to pass his pet amendment.

Lee is also one of the most nakedly partisan of the Senators blocking the appointment of a ninth Supreme Court justice, suggesting that he’ll continue to stonewall any appointment by a newly elected Senator Clinton. He’s among the congressmen that have wasted time on dozens of futile ACA repeal votes, and was a stalwart of government shutdown brinkmanship

Of course, as a Tea Party Senator, Mike Lee represents an extreme wing of the GOP.  But he's far from alone in making the Obama-era GOP-led Congress is one of the worst in American history.  From jump, the GOP made a strategic decision to obstruct Obama regardless of his agenda. They’ve made brinkmanship routine, creating needless inefficiencies as executive agencies battle shutdowns and sequestration, and where spending and appropriations proceed through short-term half measures. Their refusal to timely seat judges and justices has created judge shortages throughout the court system, most notably at the top.  There is no norm, procedure, or system that the GOP will not sabotage for partisan tactical advantage.

Over the last two terms, the popularity of Congress and the GOP has sunk to their lowest levels in generations. And yet the behavior that dragged their image down – the total abdication of a responsibility to govern, the meaningless protest votes, the endless staring contests – has been completely overwhelmed during the 2016 campaign by a discussion over general values. Individual legislators might face criticism in their own elections, but there is no national discussion of the GOP Congress’s failure to act responsibly during the Obama presidency, something that might have occurred had Senators Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio been the nominee.

The 2016 campaign could have been a real referendum on the direction in which we wanted to take the country; would we reject the obstructionism of the GOP Congress, or reward maximal partisanship? Instead, the GOP has gotten a pass for its past behavior in office and suffers only from its association with Donald Trump.

Soon, however, that albatross will be gone as Trump slinks away in shame to start a doomed media venture. At that time, the GOP will declare itself cured and return to its business as usual, the shameless obstruction of President Hillary Clinton.  It is a missed opportunity, and a bad sign for 2017 and beyond.