Today’s G.O.P. is burying Reagan’s legacy faster than Elizabeth Warren ever could.
And Abraham said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.”
In the Senate this week, the Lord found twelve.
Alas, it was 12 of 53. Less than a quarter of the G.O.P. caucus was prepared to block a national-emergency declaration most of them know violates the separation of powers, tramples on their legislative prerogatives, makes a mockery of long-held conservative principles, and establishes a political precedent they will come to regret bitterly and soon.
Nor will it solve the border problem it’s ostensibly intended to address, much less build anything except a small section of Donald Trump’s fantasy wall. Thomas More’s great line to Richard Rich from “A Man For All Seasons” may be shopworn, but it’s apt: “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but for Wales?”
In this week’s drama there’s more than one perjurious Rich. But special mentions must be made of Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis. Both of them previously opposed the emergency declaration. Both are up for renomination and re-election next year. And both found ways to vote something other than their consciences.
As for the Tillis, he too has his principles — or had them. “As a U.S. senator, I cannot justify providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “As a conservative, I cannot endorse a precedent that I know future left-wing presidents will exploit to advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms.”
“These are the reasons,” Tillis grandly concluded, “I would vote in favor of the resolution disapproving of the president’s national-emergency declaration, if and when it comes before the Senate.”
That op-ed was published on Feb. 25. On Wednesday, the day before the Senate vote, The Hill reported that Mark Walker, a Baptist preacher and Trump loyalist, was mulling a primary challenge against Tillis. “North Carolina Republican primary voters have made their voices clear,” Walker told The Hill. “They stand with the president. Our senators should as well.”
It’s remarkable how quickly principles become liquid when a Senate seat is at stake. Remarkable, also, how completely the G.O.P. is now defined by self-abasement.
Trump suggests Ted Cruz’s wife is ugly. The senator from Texas bends the knee. Trump reads out Lindsey Graham’s cell number at a campaign event. The senator from South Carolina bends the knee. Jeff Sessions? Paul Ryan? Formerly anti-Trump pundits? The entire conservative movement now looks like an immense prostration ceremony. Only it’s in the service of something the novices know at some level is dangerous and unholy.
The larger question is what this means for Republicans in 2020, and the conservative movement beyond that.
Tillis and Sasse (along with Colorado’s Cory Gardner), may have spared themselves nomination fights with their vote. But voters can always smell a sellout. Mark Walker should challenge Tillis on the view that North Carolina deserves a man in Congress who is faithful to bad ideas, rather than one who is faithless to good ones. Ditto for Nebraskans, who shouldn’t have to endure Sasse’s high-flown pedantry about the appropriate reach of the 1976 National Emergencies Act before he cravenly bows to political expediency.
As for conservatives, this episode is another reminder of the Faustian bargain of Trumpism, in which victories in policy and personnel appointments are gained at the cost of surrenders of principle. As with all such bargains, the victories are partial and temporal, the surrenders total and irrevocable.
Now the majority of Republicans in the Senate have surrendered to the idea that a president can spend taxpayer money from a partisan whim in express defiance of Congress. It’s one more capitulation to Trumpism in a list that now includes the abandoned beliefs that international alliances make us safer, free trade makes us richer, immigration makes us stronger, a free press makes us freer, human rights make us better, and tyrants should be confronted, not coddled. The Republican Party is burying the legacy of Ronald Reagan in ways Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders could only dream of.
It would be nice to look on the bright side and celebrate the 12 Republicans willing to defy the president, and much of their base, to keep faith with the Constitution. But of those 12 only one, Susan Collins, faces re-election; for the rest, from Mitt Romney to Marco Rubio, it was an easier vote.
There aren’t 12 good men in this foul city.