Former Nevada governor Kenny Guinn, a lifelong Republican, once told me that it was the Republicans who “do not believe in government” who plagued him.
He wasn’t wrong. Many of the Republicans-in-name-only (RINOs) don’t really care all that much about the party. It’s just a vehicle for their views. If a more viable vehicle were available, they’d be using it. Thus figures like Sharron Angle, who switched to the Republican Party from the American Independent Party.
E.J. Dionne recently pointed out an article in National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr. It called for putting off governing until Republicans have the presidency back. It called this “building the case for Republican governance after 2016.” It went on, “If voters come to believe that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president are doing a fine job of governing together, why wouldn’t they vote to continue the arrangement in 2016?” Thus the suggestion that governing be delayed until 2017. And if the Republicans don’t win the presidency back in 2016? Presumably the RINOs will continue blocking governance for another four years.
If that were the only RINO strategy, the damage would be less. But many RINOs sabotage government. In Nevada, after Guinn left office, he was succeeded by Jim Gibbons, who tried to damage public education. The carnage was astonishing, including cutting higher education by more than a quarter. Since Gibbons was rejected by Republican voters in the 2010 GOP primary, Gov. Brian Sandoval has restored some funding, but nothing like the level it was under Guinn. And the RINOs want to undo even Sandoval’s less than adequate program.
Meanwhile, after the Gibbons years of impairing public education to make it look bad, the new Republican Legislature enacted a measure to pay people to take their children out of public schools. The legislation was carefully crafted to make the $5,000 grants available only to parents to remove their children from public schools, not to parents whose children are already in private schools.
This kind of thing, at both the local and federal level, is fascinating to people watching from outside our society. The London Guardian recently observed, “Be it ideology or stratagem, the GOP has blocked pro-growth policy and backed job-killing austerity – all while blaming Obama. … Then again, it’s a hard accusation to prove: after all, one person’s economic sabotage is another person’s principled anti-government conservatism.”
For a long time, when evangelicals were a big force in the GOP, the big internal battle in the party was over cultural issues, and the people who were merely hitching a ride on the party were not the kind of conservatives for which Republicanism was known. As author Jeffrey Toobin has written, “Where [Barry] Goldwater had once personified the extreme rightward edge of the Republican Party, he came in his later years to be a kind of libertarian, uncomfortable with the social agenda of the evangelical conservatives.”
That was troubling enough to longtime Republicans, but the influx of far, far right conservatives who do not believe in governing makes the party look incompetent and unable to run programs, and it also makes the party look exclusive and disdainful of some Republicans. “Ronald Reagan felt there was room for all of us in the tent to agree to disagree and not say vile things about each other,” former Nevada Republican chair Bob Cashell said in 2010. “But when you come out and you’ve got people, they want to get their pound of flesh, I think it’s terrible. I think it’s very, very disturbing to the whole organization. It’s splitting the [party] organization. … The RINOs are the other people to the far, far right.”
Republicans making government dysfunctional when Democrats are in charge may have had some kind of crazy logic to it, but Republicans being unable to govern when Republicans are in charge is self-defeating. Besides, if Republicans don’t want to govern, voters will find someone who does. In 2014, the year the Republicans swept almost everything before them, the GOP nevertheless gathered in only 51 percent of the national vote – and it is nowhere near as popular today as it was then. Strategies and tactics that barely eked out a majority in that election flirt with suicide when the party is in charge and on a downward trajectory.
A political party that cannot govern isn’t much good to the public. And that’s unfortunate. The country needs more than one vigorous political party.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.