There are good weeks and bad weeks and then there is the week that the Republican Party is just concluding, a kaleidoscopic display of self-inflicted wounds by politicians struggling to govern and a party still loath to confront the damage done by former president Donald Trump.
At every turn this past week, when the spotlight was on them, Republicans showed the public their worst: marching toward a government shutdown wholly of their own making and then suddenly reversing course in the hope of avoiding one; botching their first hearing in an impeachment inquiry into President Biden that was launched without serious forethought or evidence of criminal wrongdoing; squabbling and shouting by presidential candidates during a nationally televised debate that mostly ignored the elephant not onstage.
Meanwhile, that elephant, Trump, facing 91 felony counts in four indictments, tried to look past his challengers for the Republican nomination. He went to Detroit to focus his attacks on Biden with a speech that was notable for promises of the kind that went largely unfulfilled during his four years in office.
Trump’s speech highlighted the gap between campaigning and governing, but that was even more evident in the Congress throughout the week as House Republicans stumbled toward the midnight Saturday deadline to produce something to keep the government open, while Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) struggled to maintain his grip on the gavel in the face of rebellion from his hard-right colleagues.
This is the face Republicans offered to the public at a time when they are asking voters to give them full control over the executive and legislative branches in next year’s elections.
For Biden, a weakened chief executive by every measure, the shutdown crisis comes at a politically timely moment. He needs to make the coming election about people other than himself, and about issues other than crime, immigration and inflation. House Republicans, by their flailing and finger-pointing, are providing the president with the foil he needs.
The standoff over spending will continue well past this weekend. Given all the uncertainties over an endgame, no one can say how the current battle will affect the political standing of the parties and Biden. Democrats have signaled that they intend to make the events of the week — the chaos on the Hill, the sputtering impeachment inquiry and Trump’s bid for another term in the face of his record and legal problems — all part of their argument to reelect the president.
Though there are some dissenters among them, many House Republicans have persuaded themselves that Biden is a disreputable president who deserves to be impeached — the leader of a corrupted family that has traded on his name and position. The problem is they haven’t produced conclusive evidence to prove how the president has benefited financially or in other ways abused his power.
Two weeks ago, McCarthy authorized an impeachment inquiry, an ill-defined instrument. The first hearing was held Thursday before the House Oversight Committee, under the direction of Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.). It did not go as planned, despite featuring some Fox News favorites as expert witnesses.
Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, testified that, while he believed there were grounds for an inquiry, Republicans have not crossed the threshold to justify impeachment itself. “I do not believe that the current evidence would support articles of impeachment,” he told the committee.
Bruce Dubinsky, a forensic accountant, told the committee that the evidence to date does not show abuse of power on the part of the president. “I am not here today to even suggest that there was corruption, fraud or wrongdoing,” he said. He added that Republicans need to gather and produce something more compelling before he would go that far.
Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, ridiculed the Republicans, calling the hearing a fraud. “If Republicans had a smoking gun or even a dripping water pistol, they would be presenting it today,” he said. “But they’ve got nothing.”
The night before that hearing, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, seven Republicans running for president met for their second debate of the year. They began with a focus on Biden and to a lesser extent Trump, making a case against the current president’s policies and taunting the former president as weak and cowardly for failing to join them on the debate stage.
Over the course of the two-hour session, things deteriorated rapidly. The debate became a shout-filled spectacle with candidates repeatedly talking over one another, vying for attention and rendering the moderators nearly irrelevant. By the end, they had fully turned on one another with such ferocity that Biden and Trump were mostly forgotten.
If Republican voters were looking for an alternative to Trump, and it’s not clear how many really are, they no doubt struggled to find that person. Of the seven in attendance, only two seemed remotely close to falling into that category: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.
DeSantis has seen his standing decline since starting his campaign, but he was judged the winner on Wednesday night in most of the post-debate instant polls and focus groups. Despite his struggles this year, he remains the Trump campaign’s principal target for attacks, a sign that the former president’s team still regards him as a threat who cannot be ignored.
Haley, who also was United Nations ambassador under Trump, has now distinguished herself in both debates. She comes across as confident and with some of the sharpest elbows of the bunch, someone who could give Biden problems in a general election if she were able to get that far. She sought to put others on the stage on the defensive, attacking tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and DeSantis. Had time not run out, she might have found another target.
Collectively, the seven Republicans reminded viewers of the distance the GOP has traveled since Reagan was president in the 1980s. There were invocations of memorable Reagan rhetoric, from America as the “shining city on a hill” to the conservative rallying cry of “a time for choosing.” But those lines rang hollow. What most of them lacked was the optimism that was central to Reagan’s message.
Trump appeared in Detroit on the same day as the Republican debate — and a day after Biden joined with striking members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and endorsed their demand for a 40 percent pay raise. Biden’s appearance made him the first president ever to join a union picket line.
Trump, who attracted union members and nonunion blue-collar workers in his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, spoke at a nonunion auto parts facility. He urged UAW members — not many of whom were in attendance — to encourage their leadership to endorse him for president. “I’ll take care of the rest,” he said, claiming he would engineer a turnaround in manufacturing and save the auto industry from what he said was certain decline under Biden’s administration.
Trump called for a revival of economic nationalism, the same pledge he made in 2016, and renewed his attack on foreign countries for what he said had been the looting of the American economy. He has said the same for decades. He promised to “rebuild the industrial bedrock of this country.” He did so without offering ways to do so, and without acknowledging that he had failed in his four years as president to reverse these trends.
Meanwhile, a judge in New York dealt the real estate mogul a major setback, saying that Trump had committed fraud by inflating his net worth in business transactions. The ruling came ahead of a trial on a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
That was the week that was for the Republican Party.