Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

The GOP needs to learn how to govern, and the Democrats need to figure out their identity

lucy naland/globe staff

It’s a tale of two parties, a chronicle of what should be, but hasn’t been, the best of times for one, and a story of a second struggling to find a way forward during the worst of times.

After years of dreaming of just such an Elysium, the GOP now finds itself with unified control of Washington — and with its key power posts filled by a trio of supposedly skilled deal-makers. Donald Trump, after all, ran for president on a multipurpose promise that he would get better deals for Americans on any number of fronts. And Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is a Talleyrandian tactician, House Speaker Paul Ryan a peerless policy polymath. Or so the GOP’s hopeful storyline once went.

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And yet, the first half year of the new Republican era has resulted in little beyond epic bouts of stumbling and bumbling. And, in fairness, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

After years of vowing to repeal Obamacare, Republican lawmakers find themselves stymied in an endeavor they have tried to prod along with the cynical claims that the ACA is in wholesale collapse. It’s not. In part because of the ACA logjam, the GOP’s tax “reform” is also stalled. Although an infrastructure program should be relatively easy, there’s been no progress there, either. Basics like a debt-ceiling increase and a new budget still need to be brokered.

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In the face of those failures, McConnell announced this week he’s keeping the Senate in Washington for the first two weeks in August, in pursuit of something that can be called an accomplishment. Which leads to these conclusions: (1) Little beyond posturing and pandering drove those past ACA repeal votes; and (2) it’s far easier for the GOP’s various branches to coalesce in opposition to something than to unify behind an agenda of their own.

If the next month proves as unproductive as the first half of the year, it will become obvious that Republicans really can’t govern.

The GOP’s travails have heartened the opposition, but the post-Obama Democrats have big problems of their own — problems that extend well beyond being locked out of power. They are a party with a split personality, one struggling over identity and direction.

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Should the party chart a course back toward the center? Or tack hard to port? The struggle for redefinition has been complicated by dueling interpretations of the 2016 Democratic defeat. Yes, Hillary Clinton’s underperformance in normally Democratic states cost her the presidency — but she carried the popular vote handily. Further, there’s a good argument that Clinton, with her moderate package of center-left Democratic policies, would be in the White House absent then-FBI director James Comey’s October surprise.

Contrariwise, some Bernie Sanders supporters believe that with a truly neutral Democratic National Committee, the Vermont senator would have been the nominee. And that he would have prevailed over Trump. (Call me dubious; as the Democratic standard-bearer, Sanders would have faced a political bombardment he largely escaped during primary season.)

Another dimension of the party’s dilemma is apparent in the House, where 77-year-old Nancy Pelsoi seems determined to soldier on into eternity as Democratic leader. Symbolically at least, her interminable tenure frames another quandary for the minority party: Do they emphasize the coastal liberalism and identity politics she emblematizes or try to reconnect with the white working-class voters who helped propel Trump to victory?

Despite all their problems, the Republicans are obviously better positioned.

And though Democrats are more inclined to delight in than be enlightened by Republican frustrations, there’s a lesson there for them. A party can’t simply be against something. Sooner or later, it has to come together on what it stands for.

The GOP has failed at that challenge, at least so far. It’s an effort in which the Democrats have not yet seriously engaged. 

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.
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