The American election cycle is beginning to resemble the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day. In the film, you may recall, Bill Murray plays an egomaniacal Pittsburgh weatherman named Phil Connors who discovers that he’s stuck in a time loop in which the same day repeats itself over and over. He goes bonkers, driving a truck over a cliff in a suicide attempt, only to wake up again the next morning. Substitute the American public for Connors and you have a sense of the prevailing political atmosphere in the US.
Ever since 9/11 shattered its illusion of omnipotence, the United States has been unable to escape its troubles. Instead, it has been subjected to a series of psychic blows, large and small. The most recent ones have been the fumbling attempts of the Centers for Disease Control to contain Ebola and the spectacle of a knife-wielding Iraq War veteran vaulting over an iron fence past the Secret Service and entering the White House through the front door, until he was serendipitously tackled near the staircase leading to the Obama family’s private quarters by an off-duty officer. Add in a struggling economy that, despite recent hints at a real recovery, has wiped out much of the middle class, and you have a recipe for perpetual discontent and partisan sniping.
The Republican party won back the Senate in this week’s midterm elections, but not because it is offering something that voters are actively hankering for. Quite the contrary. Just as Barack Obama really won election in 2012 because the Grand Old Party brand had become so tarnished by George W. Bush’s ineptitude, so the Republican party is on the comeback trail solely because the Democrat one has become so tarnished by Obama’s bungling. But since angry voters ricochet from one party to the other in successive elections, the GOP’s victory could prove a poisoned chalice.
For one thing, a Republican triumph does not necessarily strengthen the hands of seasoned pros such as the next Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, whose political dream has finally been fulfilled. Instead, it will represent a fresh infusion of radical conservatives and Tea Party types in both the House and Senate. Already the Texas Senator Ted Cruz (who gave House Speaker John Boehner fits during the last debt ceiling crisis by privately meeting with Republican House members in February 2014 to encourage them to rebel against their leaders and push for fiscal collapse) has said that he will once more seek to push the GOP sharply to the right.
He wants the GOP, in other words, to remain an insurgent rather than a governing force. He told the Washington Post in an interview on the eve of the election that he had no intention of deferring to McConnell and that a Republican Senate should start its session by ‘looking at the abuse of power, the executive abuse, the regulatory abuse, the lawlessness that sadly has pervaded this administration’.
He also says that he wants to force lawmakers to vote to repeal the almost 1,000-page Obamacare act — provision by provision, if necessary. Sound familiar? It’s the sort of shenanigans that helped propel Bill Clinton back to popularity in the last years of his presidency as the GOP lurched out of control and impeached him. But in the new political environment that prevails among the Republican base, Cruz is astutely positioning himself to grab the nomination for the presidency. He is set to accelerate his takeover of the party. To paraphrase Saul Bellow’s Herzog, if the Republican party is going out of its mind, it’s fine with him.
Another important area in which a newly dominant Republican party might well run amok is foreign policy. To be sure, Senator Rand Paul has been exhorting the GOP to pursue a more restrained foreign policy, in line with the moderate Republican tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. But the hawkish wing of the party has never repented, let alone acknowledged that the Iraq war was a fiasco. Instead, it’s been revivified and emboldened by the rise of Islamic State. New members of the Senate such as Tom Cotton, an Iraq war veteran and fan of the political philosopher and neocon guru Leo Strauss, will push for a renewed military surge in the Middle East — an idea which has little appeal to the American public, even after six years of frustration at Obama’s dallying on the international stage.
It’s all good news for Hillary Clinton, the ever more likely successor to Obama in the White House. The Republicans won’t have the advantage of being the ‘not-Obama party’ in 2016; if anything that trump will be Hillary’s to play. In these groundhog days, the very thing that will ensure Republicans falter at the next — and more significant — US elections is two more years of an empowered and impetuous GOP.
Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest
This is an extract from this week’s magazine. Subscribe here