GOP questions not new

A president campaigns with promises to achieve a specific goal.

The House goes along. The Senate begins to examine the matter, accedes to various lawmakers’ demands for special favors and concessions, but the process runs into resistance.

Commentators ask why a Republican president with a Republican House and a Republican Senate can’t pass a major element of the Republican platform.

That describes the legislative history of the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill of 1930, admittedly an unfortunate comparison to President Donald Trump and his efforts to win repeal of Obamacare.

That tariff bill eventually passed into law, beginning a debate that dates to this very day about whether it caused, or deepened, the Great Depression.

That debate is beside the point, at least for this column. What is relevant is the process–and the political implications.

“Hoover’s inability to manage Congress was rooted in a fundamental and amateurish misapprehension of his job,” Kenneth Whyte writes in a new (refreshingly positive) biography of the 31st president, to be published two months from now.

He adds: “His ascension to the presidency without benefit of the usual Republican machinery had duped him into thinking that he had little need of his party’s congressional potentates.”

The result of the Trump experience with health care is a fresh set of questions about what the Republican Party is all about, and who is a Republican.

These kinds of questions have been raised before.

They arose, for example, during the Barry Goldwater insurgency of 1964, again during the Ronald Reagan ascendancy in 1976 and 1980, and a third time when religious conservatives became a vital element of the GOP coalition around 1988.

Nor are these questions confined to the Republican Party. The Democrats asked similar, searing and searching questions in the period after 1968, when they lost five out of six elections and might have lost them all had not the party been burdened by the Watergate scandal in 1976.

But this month the question is taking on new urgency, prompted by the rise of a president who once was a Democrat and who won the White House by running against the establishment of the very party that gave him its presidential nomination.

Goldwater tried that more than a half-century ago and failed. By the time Reagan won his first nomination in 1980, he had a good deal of the establishment behind him, and his runningmate, George H. W. Bush, whose father was a Connecticut senator, was a gold-plated member of that establishment.

This is something entirely new.

The Republican Party is being re-formed, or reformed, at this very moment. Sober voices are asking whether some members of the party are really Republicans after all, and whether they ought to be allowed to remain under the party’s policy umbrella.

”The fact is that last year after Trump won, everyone was on the same page: full repeal of Obamacare,” says Andrew Roth, the chief lobbyist for the Club for Growth, a conservative group that emphasizes economic issues, especially lower taxes. ”When the vote came and it mattered, some Republicans betrayed their campaign promises. The truth is that they largely believe in keeping Obamacare going. They’re too liberal for the constituents they represent.”

Some establishment figures, meanwhile, are wondering whether they are welcome anymore. Like all presidents, Trump is remaking his party in his own image.

As a result, the question of who is a Republican, and what that means, remains open.