shribman

For years, political correspondents, preoccupied with the crisis in one of the country's political parties and beguiled by the alliteration, wrote pieces about the "Democrats' Dilemma":

Should they lean more to the center? Why do they have such a strong farm team and such a weak varsity? How could they possibly have lost five of the six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988?

Now the Republicans, who have won three of the past five presidential elections, are facing perhaps more serious threats. The president and the Senate majority leader may have made up, but the makeup of today's Republican Party is built for conflict.

The party regulars cannot abide the man their convention delegates chose as their presidential nominee and who now sits in the Oval Office. That president is conducting an on-again, off-again range war against his party's leaders and regularly consults with, and occasionally consorts with, Democratic congressional leaders. The tea party wing distrusts the House speaker, a man who only five years ago was the party's vice-presidential nominee and the great hope of conservatives. And true conservatives, those steeped in Friedrich Hayek and Edmund Burke, appended the word "never" before the GOP nominee's name and don't consider Donald J. Trump a conservative at all.

Without the glue provided by Franklin Roosevelt and the urgency provided by the Great Depression and then World War II, the Democratic Party was an unwieldy coalition, almost unnatural. The Republicans of this period, without the glue of the Reagan-Bush axis, which provided them two decades in office between 1981 and 2009, are even more unstable, in part because many of them regard their putative leader as unstable. That point was made earlier this month by Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and suggested by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who, without mentioning Mr. Trump's name, criticized the "half-baked, spurious nationalism" of the president.

Then, in the course of one week, former President George W. Bush and Mr. McCain's Arizona colleague, Sen. Jeff Flake, joined the criticism of the president, deploring his tone and techniques and questioning his fitness for office.

The effect — amplified by Mr. Flake's charge Tuesday that "[n]ine months of this administration is enough for us to stop pretending that this is somehow normal" and by Mr. Corker's new comments, asking why the president "lowers himself to such a low, low standard and debases our country" — only added to the perception that the Republicans, the repository of order in our politics, were descending into a troubling period of disorder.

This breakdown is occurring at a perilous time, as a Republican congressional leadership team that was unable to overturn Obamacare prepares to fashion a tax bill in an atmosphere where ideological forces (the modern conservative desire to reduce taxes and the role of Washington in the economy) collide with practical factors (the old conservative desire to promote thrift and fight deficits). Meanwhile, Mr. Trump intervenes inconveniently, and inconsistently, in the legislative process by, among other things, expressing changing views on provisions of the popular 401(k) retirement savings programs.

Mr. Flake's assertion on the Senate floor that there "may not be a place" for him in Mr. Trump's Republican Party only added to the GOP upheaval. The president's toxic thrust-and-parry with Mr. Corker ("He's obviously not going to rise to the occasion as president," the senator said) was remarkable enough. But the real peril to Mr. Trump, and to the Republicans, was Mr. Corker's remarks that the president's views on tax overhaul were not welcome.

"Tax-writing committees in the Senate and the House are going to be laying out the $4 trillion in loophole closings that need to take place," Mr. Corker said. "Hopefully the White House will step aside and let that occur in a normal process."

This is more than a break with protocol, as presidents and leaders of their party on Capitol Hill almost always work intimately on top legislative priorities. A prime example: The Democrats' alliance with the Obama White House on health care in 2010.

It is also a break with practice. In the last major tax overhaul, completed in 1986, the White House and Congress worked together. Indeed, it was a Republican president and a Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who were the principals in the landmark measure. Ronald Reagan and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski presented an astonishing united front, with the Illinois lawmaker's public "Write Rosty" appeal winning rave reviews from the Reagan White House.

Last week's spectacle on Capitol Hill — Mr. Trump's appearance at the weekly Republican senatorial luncheon followed by Mr. Flake's charge that the president was causing the "casual undermining of our democratic ... ideals" — may have no precedent. The antiwar statements of Sens. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and George S. McGovern of South Dakota against Lyndon B. Johnson, a fellow Democrat and onetime leading member of the senatorial fraternity, were pointed, but they didn't suggest that LBJ represented a dangerous departure from fundamental American ideals or traditional public presidential comportment. (There were plenty of private critiques of the 36th president's behavior.)

There are, to be sure, surface explanations for much of this. Mr. Bush is the brother of former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, whom Mr. Trump ridiculed during the 2016 Republican nomination fight. Mr. McCain has been gunning for Mr. Trump since the Manhattan billionaire questioned the heroism of the onetime Vietnam prisoner of war in July 2015. And Mr. Flake and Mr. Corker are free to speak because they are not running for another term, perhaps because they could not win nomination or re-election.

But the tone and force of their remarks cannot be comforting to the Republican Party, which until recently had promoted — revered, even — primogeniture and prudency.

If you enter the words "Republican" and "crack up" in your web browser, you will find some 1.2 million entries. Given my devout belief that the United States is a weaker nation without a strong Republican Party, it can be argued that if the Republicans have a problem, the United States has a problem.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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