Baby Steps

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

I may be a cock-eyed optimist, but I think I discern tentative steps — baby steps — indicating cracks in the facade of right-wing Republican extremism and subservience to former president Donald Trump. Two recent events indicate that some semblance of common sense may be appearing within Republican ranks. I stress the may be, but the votes of 17 Republican senators to take up a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and the results in Tuesday’s special election in Texas seem to indicate a return to levelheadedness in a party that has gone off the rails in the last several years.

The infrastructure bill has not yet been drafted, but the 67-32 vote in the Senate to move the package forward and begin debate came hours after a centrist bipartisan group of senators reached a compromise on the proposal to provide federal money for roads, bridges, rails, water, and other physical infrastructure programs as well as funding expansion of broadband to rural areas of the nation. Just last week, Senate Republicans blocked consideration of a similar infrastructure bill. 

Updating the nation’s outmoded and decaying infrastructure always promised to be the most likely part of President Joe Biden’s ambitious legislative plans to win bipartisan support. Everyone — on both sides of the political divide — believes the nation’s infrastructure is in serious disrepair, and fixing bridges and roads has wide public support. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who previously boasted that he was “100 percent” focused on torpedoing Biden’s agenda — voted to begin debate. 

McConnell and the rest of the GOP are in a tough spot on infrastructure. Passing the bill would, of course, give Biden a major victory, but, on the other hand, filibustering a very popular measure would give Democrats a significant campaign issue in 2022. No Republican up for reelection next year wants to have to explain to constituents why he or she voted against repairing a local crumbling bridge or pothole-filled road. 

But here is what is most interesting about the votes of a third of the Republican Senate conference: They were cast in defiance of the wishes of former president Donald Trump, who urged GOP members to wait until after the 2022 midterm elections, when Republicans presumably would control Congress, before considering an infrastructure bill. It was something of a running joke that, as president, Trump repeatedly promised to have an “infrastructure week,” but no legislation was ever introduced. After Wednesday’s vote to allow debate on infrastructure, Trump lashed out at the minority leader: “Under the weak leadership of Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans continue to lose.” The former president particularly savaged Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney: “Hard to believe our Senate Republicans are dealing with the Radical Left Democrats in making a so-called bipartisan bill on ‘infrastructure,’ with our negotiators headed up by SUPER RINO [Republican in name only] Mitt Romney.” 

It is difficult to know if the sudden courage of Senate Republicans to challenge the party’s cult leader owes anything to the surprising results in the Texas special election to fill the post of Representative Ron Wright, who died in February. Trump backed Susan Wright, the former representative’s widow, but she lost by six points to Jake Ellzey, a member of the Texas state legislature, in a runoff between two Republicans after no one secured a majority in the first round of voting in May. It is, of course, possible that Democrats in the suburban Dallas-Fort Worth district voted for Ellzey to rebuff Trump, but regardless of the vote breakdown, the results are an embarrassment to the former president and bring into question the clout he wields among Republican voters. 

Trump’s influence among Republicans will be put to the test in next week’s primary in Ohio, where a number of Republicans are vying to replace former Representative Steve Stivers. Trump is backing Mike Carey, a former energy lobbyist running for the Columbus-area open seat. But, several Trump allies favor rivals. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is supporting Ron Hood in the primary, and Debbie Meadows, the wife of former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, is promoting Ruth Edmonds.

Trump world views these interventions as acts of disloyalty, though both Paul and Meadows say they simply are backing rival candidates. Paul claims he favors a fellow libertarian, while Meadows had endorsed Edmonds, who is Black, arguing she “will be a powerful voice in Congress countering the growing BLM/Marxist movement” and whose “life experiences” as a Christian “have uniquely prepared her to stand up against the race-baiting bullies of the radical Left.” Whatever the motives of Paul and Meadows, Trump allies say their apostasy “will be remembered.”

Republican baby steps toward acting like a normal political party could easily lead nowhere. The infrastructure bill has yet to be drafted and many in both political parties are not pleased with the scope of the bill and the manner in which it will be funded. Republicans may be up to their usual shenanigans, stringing along negotiations until the clock finally runs out with no deal at all. Progressive Democrats are not happy with the framework for the bipartisan deal, and they desperately want to get a much more expensive companion bill dealing with “human infrastructure,” such as combating climate change and expanding Medicare, passed as well. That bill would have to become law without any Republican votes, requiring several hesitant moderate Democratic senators to support it. 

Republican voters may choose the Trump-backed candidate in next week’s Ohio primary. A victory for Carey would reinforce the view that Trump is a kingmaker in Republican primaries, forcing Republicans to shy away from working with Democrats and discouraging any shows of independence from the emperor of Mar-a-Lago. Nothing scares a Republican running for reelection more than the possibility of a primary challenge from the right. 

Still, the infrastructure deal and the Texas election results give reason to hope that at least some Republicans are beginning to return to some semblance of normal. Not all, of course, as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, and their ilk are still around. But, a healthy two-party system in which thoughtful political leaders can reach viable compromises is essential for the stability of the American body politic. For that reason alone, we should all applaud the recent developments. 

Posted July 30, 2021

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