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Keep Calm

Yes, the Polls Are Bad for Biden. But Republicans Still Have It Much Worse.

A looming shutdown, four upcoming Trump trials, and a general air of dysfunction—things are about to get very bad for the GOP.

Kevin McCarthy
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy

By almost universal agreement, the worst baseball team since the nineteenth century was the 1962 expansion New York Mets, a team of has-beens and cast-offs who lost a record 120 games. The erratic slugger Marvelous Marv Throneberry was the emblematic Met. At a key moment, Throneberry walloped a triple, only forgetting the minor detail of touching first and second base—and therefore was out. Watching bonehead moments like this, Mets manager Casey Stengel, just two years past his glory days with the Yankees, wailed, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”

The Republican Party is fast becoming the political version of the 1962 Mets. On every front, they are booting easy double-play ground balls and missing bases with Marvelous Marv–like abandon. From embodying chaos theory in the House to genuflecting before the Great God Trump in the presidential race, Republicans can’t get a handle on how to play the game of politics. They have forgotten that it’s all about winning elections, not catering to the self-indulgent fantasies of the party’s right-wing base.

Yes, I am aware of the current Democratic doldrums. Every premature horse-race poll showing a knotted presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump induces panic. And that was before an ominous Washington Post-ABC News poll was released over the weekend showing Trump with an unfathomable 10-point lead, which even the Post admitted was “probably an outlier.” The Senate map for 2024 is daunting, with Democrats needing to defend seats in such Trump states as West Virginia, Montana, and Ohio. While the outcome of the 2024 struggle to control the House may depend on court decisions about redistricting, the influential Cook Political Report shows about as many Democratic-held seats in play as Republican seats.

The conventional wisdom is that 2024 will be a replay of recent elections, with the presidential race pivoting on seven hard-fought states in the Electoral College while control of Congress may depend on a handful of seats. As John Kraushaar recently summed up in Axios, “A favorable map gives Senate Republicans an early edge, and House Democrats a slight advantage. The battle for the presidency, meanwhile, looks like a pure toss-up.”

But let me advance a contrarian notion that isn’t quite a prediction: Maybe the willful self-destructiveness of the Republican Party will finally catch up with them. Sooner or later, American politics will give us an old-fashioned blowout election. And while I don’t minimize potential Democratic problems such as Biden’s age, dwindling enthusiasm among Black and Hispanic voters, and stubborn skepticism of the president’s economic record, a case can be made that the handicappers and railbirds are underestimating the consequences of the GOP’s embrace of funeral-pyre politics.

Take the Republican House. Please.

Things have gotten so bad for House-Speaker-in-name-only Kevin McCarthy that he has lost control of the floor, the legislative equivalent of a zookeeper being locked in a cage by the animals. Not only is a government shutdown virtually inevitable on October 1, but there is also scant evidence that the House Republicans can claim that they tried to do anything to avert it, especially since they have failed to even approve a Pentagon budget. Since 1995, the GOP has triggered three major federal work stoppages, all of which ended with a full-scale Republican retreat and dismal poll numbers. This time around, the House Freedom Caucus rebels don’t even have an articulate set of demands, just primal rage. They are barely even paying lip service to past justifications of shutdowns, namely the need to rein in federal spending. Add in a Biden impeachment effort scorned by independents, and McCarthy is fast on his way to becoming the Liz Truss of House speakers.

Senate Republicans, under the ailing 81-year-old Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have typically been portrayed as mature adults since (aside from firebrands like Josh Hawley) they have no interest in shutting down the government or abandoning military support of Ukraine. But Senate Republicans are also tarnishing the GOP brand in ways that go far beyond McConnell’s shaky public appearances, which make fellow octogenarian Biden seem youthful in comparison.

While there are dim bulbs in both parties, a special lighting area should be designed for Alabama senator and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville. Shortly after he was elected in 2020, Tuberville actually mangled the identity of the three branches of government, which is not exactly the civics-book version of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Since February, Tuberville has single-handedly blocked Senate approval of more than 300 noncontroversial military promotions in a maddening protest of Pentagon support for abortion rights.

For a political party that has made a fetish out of portraying the Democrats as weak on national security, the Republicans will be hard-pressed to shout, “Support the troops,” when a government shutdown means that two million military personnel will receive delayed paychecks.

Meanwhile, on the off chance that you haven’t noticed, the Republicans seem determined to become the first major party in American history to nominate a wildly unpopular presidential candidate facing four separate criminal indictments. A rational political party, challenging an 80-year-old incumbent with low approval ratings, would be tempted to roll the dice with a younger fresh face, such as Nikki Haley or Tim Scott, neither of whom are under investigation by prosecutors anywhere. Instead, the Republicans are likely to bet the presidency on the nutcase notion that swing voters will be attracted to the spectacle of the former president in the dock. While trial schedules are difficult to predict, it would be fitting if the Republican Convention in Milwaukee climaxed with a Trump guilty verdict. In any case, it is possible that the man leading the Republican ticket in 2024 will head into the final weeks of the campaign having been convicted of at least one felony.

All this brings us to the Supreme Court—the branch of government that Tuberville forgot—which is fast becoming a subsidiary of the Republican Party. Last week, ProPublica revealed that the ethically heedless Clarence Thomas had been a secret speaker at donor conclaves of the Koch network, which spent over $60 million supporting GOP candidates in the last election cycle.

Even if justices like Thomas and Samuel Alito make scant secret of their political loyalties, their right-wing jurisprudence continually undermines GOP candidates. Since the Civil Rights era, no Supreme Court decision has had the lasting political impact of the 2022 Dobbs decision overturning Roe v Wade. And all indications are that abortion rights will continue to arouse Democratic passions and turnout.

An under-publicized case, almost certain to be decided by the court before its current term ends next June, could bring abortion racing back into the headlines. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA could allow a Supreme Court majority of conservative lawyers to overturn the government’s medical approval of the abortion drug mifepristone. Even if the court doesn’t take the extreme step of banning the abortion pill, Republican-dominated state legislatures will almost certainly continue to press for extreme measures such as unconstitutionally attempting to ban out-of-state travel for abortions.

You would think that someone in the Republican dugout would be moaning, “Can’t anyone here play this game?” But the GOP has become such a fanatical cult that most of the internal critics— particularly the Never-Trump Republicans—have, in effect, left the party. More than a year from the 2024 election, Republicans might take comfort in the reality that few voters are paying attention as of yet to the zany demolition derby on Capitol Hill and Trump’s legal plight might seem like old news, even as the indictments pile up. But a lengthy government shutdown, a Trump trial, or a new abortion ruling could change that equation fast—and no sane political party wants to be consistently losing the news cycle heading into a presidential election.

Back in 1962, you could at least say for the Mets that they were not consciously trying to lose. This time around, it is hard to make the same case for the kamikaze Republicans.