Roundtable – Anarchy in the GOP

The Roundtable is Torchlight’s weekly discussion of news and events. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity, and most links were added after the fact. This conversation took place on July 30, 2017.

Welcome to the Roundtable, the weekly news roundup where Torchlight staff talk about the news and events of the day. With us today are Senior Managing Editor Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Junior Managing Editor David Schmitz, Politics Editor Christopher Dahlin, contributing writer Katie Grzesiak, Trump supporter Sam Dieffenwierth, and myself, Editor-in-Chief Tom Rich. This has been a strange and momentous week in American political news, from John McCain’s Hollywood-worthy torpedoing of Obamacare repeal to the announcement-by-Twitter of an impending ban on transgender military service to the sudden removal of Reince Priebus from the White House. Little of the news looked good for the President or the Republican Party, so let’s open up with that: what did this week really reveal about the GOP and President Trump’s political positions?


Christopher Dahlin

There was a shocking reveal that Trump does not actually know anything about government or management.  He doesn’t know how to negotiate or make a deal.  He is in fact, worse than useless to his side, because between ineffectually threatening Murkowski, and reportedly McCain was extremely angry about the trans servicemember ban, that cemented the loss.  Which he refuses to accept or comprehend.

Basically, it confirmed that he will actually act like a 5 year old.


David Schmitz

This week shines the light that the Senate Republicans are not, in fact, a freight train of lockstep votes. Some are vulnerable and/or pissed enough to vote against their leadership.


Katie Grzesiak

I’m not sure it revealed much; it confirmed the lack of leadership in the White House and the lack of teamwork or even camaraderie in the White House and in the GOP in general.  No one wants to work together, within or without.


Tom Rich

The thing that surprised me the most was that a vote happened when McConnell wasn’t completely sure he had the votes to pass it. He has this reputation as a legislative mastermind, and the GOP in general has a reputation for not voting until they have their people lined up, but that was fairly dramatically refuted this week. Where I’m less sure is if this is a one-off incident, or evidence of a sea-change. What do you all think: a blip on the radar or a shift in the political balance?



I think McConnell did think he had all the votes; it wouldn’t have made sense to bring it to the floor otherwise.   This was a way to jam Trumpcare through, since the Senate can only consider one budget reconciliation bill per topic per year.  It did come to a vote, and now they can’t use budget reconciliation again on healthcare until the new fiscal year.  McConnell thought he had the votes, thought he would get to call Pence down to cast the tie breaker–since Collins & Murkowski were strongly standing their ground against strong pressure from the party–but McCain’s conscience stepped up to the plate out of left field. (I play softball tonight, you guys!)



Well, I think McConnell made the same assumption about McCain a lot of other people did: he talked a good game, but his voting was anything but Maverick. He didn’t count on McCain wanting his final Most Important vote to  not be something obviously terrible or whatever reason McCain voted the way he did.


I think that McConnell still has the skill and the knowledge, but he lost this fight that was basically the soul of the Republican Party for awhile.  He is severely weakened because of it.  Combine that with a president who is not just uncooperative, but completely insensible to how the Senate or legislation in general works, his position as a master tactician is less secure. (have fun!)



I’d say the outlook weighs heavily on the next major vote. Say tax “reform”? If the Senate Republicans have trouble whipping to consensus there, then I’ll say they are in trouble internally. Until then, this was just a blip.


Sam Dieffenwierth

I agree, I’m afraid I can’t see this as anything but a blip in the radar. McConnell and Ryan are still rarin’ for a repeal, even as it becomes increasingly clear that the American public, the Republican base, and even Congress itself is tired of constant repeal attempts. I expect we’ll continue to see repeal take top priority as Congressional leadership finds more arcane legislative shortcuts for votes, even as the Republican base clamors for action on the other, more important issues on the Trump platform.



I think the problem there is they literally don’t have the time. They have other shit to do that is vital to the running of the United States, and also vital to the world economy. This was their bite of the apple.  They may try to cobble something together next week, but McCain is back home in Arizona, and Collins and Murkowski aren’t going to budge now (not that they were budging before, obviously). They may want to do something else, but they simply do not have the votes to go forward with anything.  The stuff they do have the votes for, the House won’t pass.


Now, Trump not paying the CSRs absolutely might happen, and Congress isn’t going to take that up, either.



I want to shift gears a little and talk about the tossups at the White House over the last week or so. Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus are gone, Anthony Scaramucci is in, and Jeff Sessions is getting bullied on Twitter like he’s in second grade and just accidentally called the teacher “mom.” Like with Congress, is any of this evidence of reaching some critical or important point in the Trump administration, or is it just more of the same puff and bluster we’ve seen so far?



Well I think it is interesting and important to note the removal of establishment Republicans from the inner circle being replaced by military and corporate minded individuals. Who has the ear of the President and who will influence decisions going forward?



A bit of both, perhaps; incompetence, infighting, and Trump’s lack of leadership continue to roil and boil in the White House, and it could be something significant this time.  However, we’ve heard “well this will be the last straw” approximately twice a week for the last few months; calling this a harbinger of big change, one way or another, seems shortsighted considering how politics in the US has progressed over the past 2 years.



I think it’s critical in that whatever inertia the Administration initially had is now completely gone. What we have now is utterly Trump’s administration, and it is a shambles.  He’s a terrible manager, all of his employees are backstabbing each other, there is no loyalty to (or consideration of) the U.S or the constitution.  Add to that, Trump doesn’t actually know much about what is going on. What is revealed is not a master of business showing his craft in the White House, but a Bully and an ignoramus blundering into everything.


I don’t know if this is the inflection point, but it’s basically the moment where what is going on is undeniable to everyone, even those not paying attention



In an election dominated by a rejection of the political establishment, adding Reince “RNC Chairman” Priebus to the team was the biggest mistake Trump could’ve made, both for optics to his base (I don’t want to use establishment politicos, oh wait I’m making one Chief of Staff) and for getting things done- I wouldn’t be surprised if Priebus has been quietly sabotaging Trump from behind the scenes. Spicer was a liability and has been for months.  Scaramucci’s got some teeth to him and if there’s one thing Trump’s base likes it’s the admin getting down-and-dirty with the media.

Going after Sessions is a mistake, plain and simple. The base likes Sessions’ tough talk and action on illegals and drug legalization, and the AG is definitely someone any President needs on his side. The Prez is shooting himself in the foot with this one.


Josh Kyu Saiewitz

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (Except at Each Other)

I’ll say more substantively is that the healthcare vote is pretty huge. It’s the iceberg and the personnel shakeups are the deck chairs getting rearranged. We have pretty definitive proof now that Trump can’t get anything of substance out of Congress (except apparently bills curtailing his own power, as with the sanctions bill). I’m not sure how this affects the Watergate speedrun but for sure he looks weak as hell because he is.



Ok, so we’ve established that this is all more than a little chaotic. The administration’s probably a lost cause, but do we see any practical road ahead for returning the Senate to it’s function? Do either Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer have a realistic way to move toward good legislation passing again? Or, to put it another way, what’s the over/under on McCain’s rallying cry for a return to regular order actually happening?



I don’t think this loss was actually bad enough for McConnell to decide that he shouldn’t do things like write legislation in secret and attempt to pass it in a matter of hours with no debate. That horrifying undemocratic strategy almost worked, and it would have, too, if not for those meddling Senators. He’ll be at it again and we won’t return to regular order until the Democrats take the Senate or McConnell goes shell up. That said, the GOP is uniquely divided on health care; it remains to be seen whether tax reform, which is more complicated but less sexy for activists, is an issue they’re more able to pull together on.



The biologist in me would like to note that McConnell will go “plastron-up.”



I think that McConnell specifically did what he did with the repeal because it has been central to the Republican identity for so long. He had to have something, but any something would have been disastrous, so he wanted to keep eyes off of it as much as possible.  I don’t think he’s going to use it for any other business in the Senate, but no other business will need to be done like that. What he did weakened the procedures and the norms, certainly, but it was just such a weird situation, I don’t think he feels he needs to do it for anything else.



Good legislation? Chuck Schumer just co-sponsored a bill that would throw American citizens in Federal prison for twenty years if they supported the BDS movement. Good legislation’s not coming out of Congress anytime soon. That being said, with the Democrats following the script the Republicans came up with during Obama of yelling NO loudly and repeatedly on pretty much everything “regular order” isn’t coming back. There’ll be more “principled refusals” to vote on even the smallest of bills and if there’s a Dem White House takeover in 2020 you can bet that the Republicans will do the exact same thing. Bad things come from thinking your opponents are soulless monsters.



I think the Dems are going to have a different strategy, honestly. So far, they have obstructed nothing. It’s the Republicans that can’t get their act together.  Yes, the lack of discretionary spending has contributed to the mess, but the problem here is that the Republicans simply can’t agree enough on which terrible policies they want to enact.  It was McCain’s vote that killed the repeal. It is Trump that can’t nominate enough people. The Republicans have been doing nothing with Democratic input.  The Republicans as a party see government as ineffective and useless, because the way they govern is ineffective and useless.  Democrats actually want to govern well, which is why they value the rules and norms of the government.


That isn’t to say the BDS thing wasn’t incredibly stupid, mind you. Or that Republicans will absolutely continue their strategy of utter viscosity.  It’s the overall strategy you predict I disagree with.



According to the Intercept, that bill is sponsored by “a group of 43 senators — 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats.” … “The two primary sponsors of the bill are Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio.” As for refusals to vote on the smallest of bills due to partisan hatred, the sanctions bill passed in the Senate 98-2, I believe. So there’s still common ground out there.

Final thoughts on any of the topics we’ve discussed today? Bonus points for using applicable Hamilton lyrics, as I will do now.

On the White House factionalism:

Thanks to Trump, our cab’net’s fractured into factions

Try not to crack under the stress, we’re breaking down like fractions

We smack each other in the press, and we don’t print retractions

(There’s some explicit lyrics in that YouTube video, so watch yourself at work – Tom.)



Regular order is not coming back to Congress until deals can be made across the aisle with pork barrel spending. I’ll probably live the rest of my life without seeing that day come, but I’m convinced that’s what is missing in the discourse. And acknowledging truth from fiction.



Being able to get something from people you hate makes everyone congenial. Something Something Talk Less Something Something Room Where It Happens.



Shakups good, McCain finally being a maverick good, Congressional deadlock not going anywhere.



I think the most likely outlook for Congress is David’s description, but there is a small, optimistic possibility that votes like Collins’ and Murkowski’s will continue to crop up with more regularity.  Since lawmakers have swung so far to “what is even happening,” the pendulum could swing back toward actually doing things.  Maybe even in the next 10 years or so.



The fastest way to change Congress is to change who works there. 2018 can’t come fast enough. That’s it for this edition of the roundtable. Thanks for a lively discussion, everyone.