Why Republicans Can’t Relax

They must survive a permanent campaign environment in overdrive—and that also explains why so little is getting done.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) is joined by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-PA) while talking to reporters after the weekly Senate Republican Caucus.

Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) must worry about defending his seat from the right.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then House Republicans might look potty. On Friday, the House voted for the 40th time to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Though each week presents new reasons to not like the bill—premiums up 40 percent in Ohio—the votes are as pointless as ever because the legislation isn’t going anywhere. But this isn’t as insane as it looks because the goal isn’t repealing the legislation. The vote is entirely symbolic. The conservative base likes it and we are heading into a non-presidential-election year where the base is important. (Sen. Mike Lee is raising money from his effort to kill the bill.) 

But while House Republicans can pass bills that do nothing, they could not pass an appropriations bill, which is a basic requirement of being in charge of the place. House leaders had to pull the vote on an appropriations bill for transportation and housing at the last minute on Wednesday because they could not find the votes. The spending cuts were too deep for almost all Democrats and even some Republicans. Conservatives also voted against it for not cutting enough. Mix that opposition together and the effort went THUD, the appropriate shorthand used to refer to the bill (Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development). 

When you spend your time doing base maintenance and not basic maintenance, something has gotten out of whack. But it’s all about maintaining your base more than ever in Washington these days, whether it’s your ideological base or your fundraising base. The more time you spend raising money and fighting off primary challenges, the less time and inclination a lawmaker has for governing. Not coincidentally, Congress takes its mid-year break having passed the fewest laws in its history. Congressional approval has been so low for so long the store of metaphors describing how low it has fallen is bankrupt, too.

The money story is a familiar one. Lawmakers may not be highly productive when it comes to creative solutions or passing bills, but they are productive when it comes to raising money. Politico did an analysis this week which showed that Senate incumbents running for re-election in 2014 are building up their war chests faster and larger than ever before. If you are raising that much money, you’re not doing your day job. The hunt for money also infects your day job because you are more inclined to do what your money backers want. When you’re stooped in a permanent grovel, it’s hard to straighten up. 

It’s not just the fundraising requirements that have moved candidates to election mode earlier. If you define yourself or your opponent early, you can make your job easier later. Or, you can scare them out of the race with a robust set of early attacks. That is how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell scared actress/activist Ashley Judd from running. To be ready to pounce, you’ve got to start your next campaign the day you win your seat.

Candidates can’t relax. Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming had only raised $1 million because he thought he was safe this cycle. Now he faces Liz Cheney, daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, in a GOP primary. Cheney has a huge group of donors she can tap. (Many of them live in Virginia, where she was a longtime resident before moving to Wyoming to run for Senate.)

But perhaps the more important takeaway from the Enzi race is that no one is safe on the Republican side. Sen. Enzi has a conservative voting record, but that’s not enough. Conservatives want a pugilist for the cause, and they have picked Cheney. It’s just one of the ways that the Senate is beginning to resemble the rough-and-tumble House. 

The fear of an electoral ejection has moved into the twitch muscles. Everyone must be on the lookout. The old cliche is that an incumbent either runs scared or runs unopposed, but now GOP candidates have to stay in a perpetual state of fear, even if they are unopposed. You might get a challenger any day, and the old barriers to entry don’t stop the challenges.

Politicians have always acted politically, but there were holidays. After elections you could vote your conscience, provided you had one. Or seniority and institutional structure allowed you to attend to long-term problems free from the push-button will of the people. Being in Senate leadership isn’t enough for Mitch McConnell, for example. He now has a Tea Party challenger. Being the party leader in Washington doesn’t mean what it used to when Washington is out of favor. Young bucks in the Senate who could help neutralize the Tea Party threat to McConnell are not stepping in to protect him. Sens. Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Ron Johnson all refused to say whether they were backing their leader against his challenger. In the old days they would have backed him to grease their ascent in the Senate. But they can do that on their own. They get their donations from the grassroots or conservative billionaires, so they’re not beholden to K Street. They don’t need McConnell’s entree to the lobbyists club. 

McConnell probably won’t get turned out of office—he’s a fierce political warrior—but he’s not going to take any risks either. He’s certainly not going to work hard to extend his hand in a fit of bipartisanship; he’s got to keep his base happy. 

Spread this phenomenon out across all Republicans and it’s not a recipe for getting much done. Activist groups know this, which means if they can back a more conservative opponent, they can keep lawmakers in line. The illustrative tale is the behavior of Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch of Utah. Bennett lost his seat, for among other things, working toward compromise with Democrats. Hatch once had that reputation, too, but faced with a possible challenge he moved fast and hard to the right. He is now such a sterling example of how to avoid a primary challenge, other senators use his campaign as a model. 

Speaker Boehner says he can pass the THUD bill when the House returns in the fall. He could do so by increasing the funding levels to make it more palatable to moderate Republicans and maybe some Democrats. That would anger the grassroots focused on reducing the size of government. They are wary that Boehner, who likes to cut spending but also needs to run the place, might capitulate. If the House speaker can’t find a solution, this problem will face him on a host of appropriations bills, a debt limit agreement, and immigration—bills we might want to relabel KERPLUNK, SPLAT, and CRASH.