Can the GOP Maintain Party Unity in the Time of Trump?
By: Daniel Keller
For those who have seen the Netflix original series House of Cards, the vital role that the congressional whip plays in Congress is evident. The show, through its protagonist Frank Underwood, gives us a glimpse into just how important it is for the whip to keep members of the party voting on bills and issues in line with the party’s agenda. Traditionally, the whip’s job is to ensure that members of the party vote on legislation that the party has agreed on supporting. For example, if a Democrat was unsure on how to vote on healthcare reform that was proposed by Republicans, Democrats would use the whip to try and convince them to vote against the bill.
House of Cards understands the decisive place the whip has in the political sphere. Throughout Frank’s time as whip, we can see him working hard to corral Democratic party members into falling in line, whether he must appeal to their sense of party unity, make a concession with them on another issue, or even threaten them with a primary contender during the next election cycle. With these instances in the show, House of Cards works to answer many questions the average citizen has about the intricacies of Washington D.C.
One of the more interesting questions surrounding party politics details what would happen when a fracture occurs in the party. If one group of lawmakers begin to butt heads with the rest of the party, how might that impact the party’s ability to pass legislation successfully? Interestingly enough, we don’t have to wait until Netflix puts out another season of House of Cards to see how that might affect a political party.
The issue of immigration has begun to tear the Republican Party apart. The dilemma of how to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States is one that has been fiercely debated not just in Congress, but also between many average Americans that hold strong convictions regarding the issue. While this originally was seen as a partisan issue, dividing people based on party lines, it also is a contentious point within the Republican Party. More conservative members want strong action to be taken against what they see as a violation of the rule of law, while more moderate Republicans believe these policies are too harsh, alienating young immigrants who have only known America to be their home.
The seeds of discord between the two factions of the party were sowed early on with the Trump campaign’s hardline against immigration. But in recent days, these two groups come to a head when it came to the passing of a farm bill. This bill dealt with a number of different issues. In regard to food stamps, the bill included harsher restrictions on recipients, requiring able-bodied adults to either be working or participate in state-run training programs. The bill also dealt with school lunches by asking the USDA to reconsider nutritional standards set by the Obama administration. With the bill receiving universal condemnation from Democrats, Republican leadership needed party unity on this bill in order to ensure that it would pass.
However, moderate Republicans took the opportunity to challenge leadership on the issue of immigration, threatening to shoot the bill down if they did not force a vote protecting young immigrants who relied on the DACA program to stay in the country. With President Trump signing an executive order eliminating the program, and Congress failing to find compromise on the issue, moderate Republicans feared that DACA-protected immigrants would be deported if nothing was done. To prevent this, moderate Republicans decided to use their support for the farm bill to their advantage, making it a bargaining chip to protect young immigrants.
More conservative members of the party were furious with moderate Republicans and condemned the actions of their colleagues. This left party leadership in a precarious position, trying to create compromise between two diametrically opposed groups. While negotiation attempts were vigorous, in the end they were unsuccessful. The bill failed to pass.
The issue of immigration isn’t the only point of contention within the Republican Party. During the tumultuous votes on the repeal and replacement of Obamacare in the summer of 2017, concerns about the number of people who could lose coverage under Republican proposed plans made moderates skeptical to support them, while more conservative members of the party believed that the cuts didn’t do enough to impact the deficit.
The events that have taken place create a lot of questions about the future of the Republican party. As primary season draws to a close, and the general election gets closer and closer, the direction that the Republican party takes will be vital to preventing a blue wave. With low presidential approval ratings, and the results of important special elections falling in favor of democratic candidates, Republicans have much reason to fear losing seats that they once believed were safe. If the blue wave were to take place, Republicans will find even stauncher opposition to their current legislative efforts and may find it difficult to control Democratic impact on issues such as the Mueller investigation, Healthcare Reform, and other issues that still hang in the balance.
If Republicans wish to be more successful on the legislative front, finding the right balance between conservative and moderate candidates this primary season may be their best chance at maintaining their current majority in the House and the Senate.
However, the recent primaries may indicate that more division and friction within the party is likely to be seen. During West Virginia’s senate race, Don Blankenship openly criticized Republican leadership, using racial slurs against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife. While Blankenship didn’t win his election, he has pledged to run as a third-party candidate, possibly creating division among the Republican vote if he is successful in kickstarting his campaign.
Other candidates have used hardline conservative stances as a forefront platform of their campaign, with Georgia gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams using a “deportation bus” as a prop to show his hardline stance on undocumented immigrants living in Georgia. In addition, all Republican candidates of the Georgia gubernatorial race stated that they would sign a religious liberty bill into law that the previous Republican governor vetoed.
Gun issues also shaped up to be a major part of the race. Candidate and current Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle is calling to rescind tax breaks to Delta, a major airline, due to their stance against the NRA. If hardline conservatives find success in the primary alongside their moderate colleagues, more contentious battles between party members may be seen in the future.
This issue isn’t just seen in the Republican Party either. Democrats have their own issues of division to overcome in the 2018 primaries as well, with progressive Democrats and more traditional Democrats finding themselves at odds coming out of the 2016 primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. With some Democrats pointing fingers, each claiming that the other side is to blame for their huge loss to Donald Trump and the Republican Party, there are questions about whether the blue wave may see an interruption. If Democrats are more inclined to criticize those within the party surrounding issues such as support for more progressive policies or animosity from the previous elections, it is very possible that a surge of Democratic candidates will fail to get the support from each faction that is needed to best Republicans.
With staunch opposition from both progressives and traditional Democrats against current Republican policy, the group may be more inclined to put their issues aside and work together in comparison to the GOP.
This being said, Republicans theoretically also have more to lose. While division in the Democratic Party may prevent them from winning the seats that they are aiming for, this will likely return them to their current position in Congress–a Republican majority looking to enact policy, and Democrats using their opposition position to do their best to postpone or hault the Republican agenda. On the contrary, Republicans and the fractures within their party could result in active losses, turning seats over to Democrats.
If Republicans wish to continue to find themselves in the majority come November, they must resolve these conflicts and decide where exactly the party stands on divisive issues. As the blue wave creeps closer and closer, Republicans must decide where they will stand soon, or face the sand under their feet slipping away into the ocean. Enacting the support of candidates that have a more moderate stance or those that may resemble the harsher rhetoric of the Trump campaign of 2016 will, at the least, allow the party to have a definitive place in legislative policy and eliminate the confusion surrounding candidates.
It remains to be seen if the Republican party can come together and make a compromise. Whether the GOP is capable of bridging the party is on everyone’s mind in Washington–and may end up being just as nail biting as a season finale of House of Cards.