For the better part of the past decade, Republicans have been preaching the doctrine that Washington’s dysfunction is the sole barrier standing between the American people and the promised land. They have railed against every facet of the federal government, decrying “career politicians” and looking for leaders from Main Street.
I wish I could name every conservative politician who has uttered the phrase “Washington is the problem,” but doing so would consume the vast majority of this article. For the past eight years, Republican politicians have been using this slogan to define their party. The strategy has worked, but maybe a little too well.
By the second half of the Obama presidency, most of red America was not only outraged at the Democrats for their policies, but at their own party’s representatives for not fighting hard enough against those policies. Virginians went so far as to oust majority leader Eric Cantor in a primary election in favor of a college professor who ran on a tea-party, anti-Washington platform.
For the better part of Obama’s term, Republican thought leaders have set unrealistic expectations for what can be accomplished in Washington. When the initiatives inevitably fail, they cast Republican leadership as weaklings of the conservative movement.
In the current campaign, Republican presidential candidates with legitimate governing experience have been cast aside in favor of candidates who lack any credible political experience, or who have spent their careers attempting to bring down the institution from within.
After eight years of hearing that Washingtonians are the problem, can you really blame Republican voters for rejecting those with Washington on their resumes?
By virtue of being Republican, many conservative voters are inclined to favor anti-Washington sentiments. Primarily this manifests itself through hostility toward Democratic policy: they want smaller government, less regulation, and lower taxes. Traditionally, strict adherence to these principles was good enough to be called a conservative leader. Not anymore.
Since Mitch McConnell declared it his goal to make Barack Obama a one-term president, the only real way to be a conservative was to oppose anything and everything at each opportunity. If you voted for a budget that included 99% conservative priorities but 1% of Obama’s priorities, you were cast as a traitor who enabled a tyrant.
Groups like the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth began scoring elected officials not on their traditional conservative principles, but rather on their fortitude in the face of Obama’s agenda. By the time the midterm elections came the Tea Party revolt was in full swing and Washington as a whole, not just the left, had become the enemy.
The election of 2012 should have been a sign of things to come. While relative moderate Mitt Romney eventually emerged as the nominee, several Tea Party darlings threw their hat into the ring as anti-Washington candidates. In her speech announcing her candidacy for president, Michele Bachmann declared “More than ever, Washington is the problem.” Throughout his first campaign, Texas Governor Rick Perry released a series of ads claiming that “Washington is the problem” that he needed to be elected to fix.
The fact that the Republicans picked up 67 seats in the House between 2008 and 2014 only helped reinforce the anti-Washington narrative among elective hopefuls. It has become a classic case of short term thinking that caused long term damage.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015. The field of Republican presidential hopefuls was taking shape. Among the candidates are your traditional government executives. Governors of Florida, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin. Senators from Florida, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas. Among those individuals would you like to guess who generated the most excitement among conservative voters?
Answer: A bellicose real-estate mogul, a mild-mannered former neurosurgeon, and a sharp tongued former Hewlett-Packard Executive.
Meanwhile, former governors of Texas and Wisconsin, and senators from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina were the first to drop out.
No longer is good governance a starting qualification to run for President within the Republican party. John Kasich helped balance the federal budget as a Congressman. Sinful. Chris Christie accepted President Obama’s help while New Jersey was recovering from Hurricane Sandy. Unacceptable. Rick Perry is the longest serving governor of the country’s second most populous state? No matter.
Rather, the most important qualification voters sought was that the candidate had nothing to do with Washington. The well has been so poisoned by years of trashing the established political order that candidates who fight in opposition to this tradition can get away with almost anything.
Ben Carson, for all his success as a surgeon, would have been laughed off the stage in any other presidential election year. He speaks with a tone more fit for a lullaby and he is about as charismatic as a throw pillow, except even those get fluffed up a couple times a day. Yet, in 2015 the fact that he could say he had never held public office gave him great credibility to the conservative audience. His star has since faded, but the fact that he ever led in the polls is a testament to the anti-Washington monster that has been created.
Donald Trump has a similar anti-Washington appeal, albeit in a slightly different way. As was articulated in my earlier article Fear and Loathing in Washington he has been able to tap into voters frustrations by becoming the most untraditional campaigner ever. He insults people, he makes outlandish statements, and he refuses to compromise or cooperate with any standard political norms.
Finally, Ted Cruz has become the ultimate example of the anti-Washington movement. Despite holding the title of United States Senator, he has spent every waking second in that position fighting anyone with a pulse at the Capitol.
Since coming to Washington, Ted Cruz’s desire to prevent anything from moving through the Senate has been well documented. His biggest claim to fame is the engineering of the 2013 government shutdown over the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Cruz popularized the impossible theory that if only the Republicans would work together, the ACA could be successfully repealed. This was pure fiction from the beginning, yet his branding of the issue made red America believe that the failure to do so was the fault of the weak within their party.
He has advocated for refusing to pass budgets unless Planned Parenthood is defunded. Also a fictional theory. These types of demands and negotiations conducted at the end of a barrel are not, and will never be, how Congress gets things done.
Cruz regularly gives speeches accusing his fellow Republican’s of wilting instead of fighting for conservative causes that he alone champions. He has burned so many bridges that he often waits in his car until the end of votes, dashes inside, and returns seconds after casting his yay or nay.
All of his antics have increased the gridlock that many Americans have long lamented. Yet, rather than fault him for being a cog in the wheel, they hail him as if he were Leonidas from 300 — though they forget Leonidas eventually finds himself riddled with arrows.
If Ted Cruz manages to succeed in securing the Republican nomination, there is no doubt the United States will elect its first woman President. Cruz may excite the extreme right of this country who believe that government default is more desirable than a budget that includes the ACA, but they are not the majority.
A governor like John Kasich who shows a willingness to work across the aisle and speaks of America’s greatness rather than its demise would be much more likely to pick up independent voters against a candidate like Clinton who has dealt with years of trust issues.
This will never happen though, because the Republican’s have created a Frankenstein that may not be able to be contained. After seven years of setting unrealistic expectations for their leaders and then faulting them for failing to achieve those same pipe dreams, the Republicans have created an environment in which only one type of candidate can emerge from their primaries.
Ted Cruz versus Donald Trump may not be the race registered Republicans want, but it is absolutely the race they deserve.