National Perspective

The Corker Moment

WASHINGTON -- The Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. And yet ...

And yet the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week described the GOP White House as an "adult day-care center."

And yet the Republican president is at war with the Republican leader of the Senate and now is consorting with the Democrats to produce a health care overhaul his Republican allies could not pass in three tries.

And yet the business interests who customarily line up with Republicans are describing the efforts of the Trump administration to reshape NAFTA as "highly dangerous."

All those (BEGIN ITALS)and-yets(END ITALS) prompt a serious question that is unspoken and yet unavoidable in the Trump era:

(BEGIN ITALS)Are the Republicans even a party anymore?(END ITALS)

A similar question might be asked of the Democrats, as increasing numbers of independent activist groups push the world's oldest political party to the left. But parties out of power customarily engage in introspection, a role Democrats perfected in the 1980s when the gravitational pull was to the center rather than leftward. The Democrats' struggle to redefine themselves in the wake of a humiliating defeat is notable but, in historical terms, unremarkable.

It is the struggle inside the Republican Party that is the more unusual, the more compelling and almost certainly the more consequential, for perhaps never in modern American history has a party so well situated on paper been so fragmented in reality.

Republicans now control twice as many chambers as do Democrats in state legislatures across the country -- the very institutions sometimes described as "laboratories of democracy" -- and they hold two-thirds of the governors' chairs, a breathtaking and potentially significant dominance, especially since former governors account for more than 60 years in the presidency since 1901. The Republicans' majority in the Senate is small, but they have Vice President Mike Pence at the ready to break a tie. In the House, the Republican majority is the largest since the administration of Calvin Coolidge.

Indeed, it is instructive to look at the presidency of Coolidge -- a former governor of Massachusetts -- as a way of understanding the deep peril that envelops the Republicans today.

In those years, nearly a century ago, the Republican in the White House and the Republicans in the Congress stood for morality, frugality and stability. There were few if any strains between the executive and legislative branches. The president himself celebrated "experience and maturity." Coolidge seldom spoke, believing that "I have never been hurt by what I have not said."

Not one of those sentences can be applied to the current president and the current Congress.

The 30th president was devoutly conservative, while the 45th speaks of conservatism but is reviled by conservatives and is not conservative in style, precept or haberdashery. There may be no precedent for the criticism that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce leveled last week at the Trump White House for its trade policies. John Murphy, the group's senior vice president for international policy, said bluntly that the Trump approach to NAFTA "will do harm."

The irony is that the divide between the Republican White House and the Republican Congress is wider than the divide between Richard Nixon's Republican White House and the Democratic Congress before Watergate -- and contempt for Nixon was rampant among Democrats dating back to his first congressional campaign in 1946.

Together the Nixon White House and the Democratic Congress passed environmental, workplace safety and progressive tax bills. Democrats in Congress may have loathed Nixon for his 1950s Red-baiting and his treacly personality traits, but much landmark legislation can be traced to the first Nixon term. And though it was a delegation of Republicans who prevailed on Nixon to resign in 1974, the principal divisions within the party were about the war in Vietnam and insignificant politically.

"The Republican Party when Nixon was in office was unified," said John R. Price, a domestic-policy aide in Nixon's early White House years. "He was basically a centrist who managed to keep the party together -- until Watergate. The Republicans felt, in fact, great delight in having the presidency back after Kennedy and Johnson."

Republicans are delighted in having the White House back after two Barack Obama terms, too -- though it might be more accurate to say that they are more delighted that Obama is not president than they are that Trump is. They have rebuffed Trump every time the issue of health care has reached the Senate floor. And, according to the latest PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, two-thirds of Republicans now oppose how their party has addressed the issue, a significant increase in recent months.

But what is ominous for the GOP is that the slice of Republican voters who identify as Trump supporters and also oppose how congressional Republicans have handled health care has doubled since June. This split between establishment Republicans and Trump Republicans is the fault line with the greatest potential for altering the contours of American politics.

The president's fight with GOP Sen. Bob Corker, who heads the Foreign Relations Committee and sits on the Budget Committee, is indicative of his impatience with conventional politicians, though Corker's background is eerily similar to Trump's. The Tennessee lawmaker built his fortune in real estate and began his career as an outsider, with an unsuccessful Senate primary challenge to the establishment candidate, Bill Frist, in 1994.

But on Sunday, the president goaded Corker by suggesting the senator "didn't have the guts" to run for re-election next year, prompting Corker, not known as a hothead, to provide one of the more unforgettable ripostes of the Trump years: "It's a shame the White House has become an adult day-care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning."

Fighting words, to be sure. But indicative of a larger fight, one with large implications.

EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Gillian Titus, gtitus@amuniversal.com.

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