House Republicans will hold their leadership elections next week and all signs point to them remaining more interested in appeasing a narrow base than governing a diverse country.
Consider: The only woman positioned to run for majority leader, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, decided not to make a bid. The two men competing for the job are conservatives from the Deep South. The favorite for speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California, is less experienced than John Boehner, less accomplished, and — if he follows through on private promises — more confrontational.
McCarthy has already signaled with a potentially costly gaffe that he may not be ready for prime time. It came when he boasted to Sean Hannity on Fox News that the House investigation of the 2012 murders of Americans in Benghazi has done serious damage to Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
"Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought and made that happen," he said.
Not that this was a secret, but thanks for the gift of a sound bite that makes clear the Benghazi probe — the latest of many — is not entirely about getting to the truth. The incident recalls a classic moment in 2012 when Mike Turzai, majority leader of the Pennsylvania House, ran down a list of achievements that ended: "Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done."
Later that year, President Obama beat Mitt Romney by 5 percentage points in Pennsylvania. And a judge ultimately struck down that voter identification law. The larger point is that until Turzai's brag, conservatives across the country had religiously stuck to talking points about good government and rooting out (virtually nonexistent) fraud, as opposed to giving their side an edge by making it harder for some people — like urban minorities — to vote.
One of the deepest rifts in today's chasm-ridden GOP is whether to try to attract a larger swath of voters or to double down on the party's dwindling core of loyalists. The latest test — over whether to shut down the government in an attempt to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood — illuminated the divide. Republican reactions were revealing, especially among senators facing voters next year in blue and purple states.
You had Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire demanding of Sen. Ted Cruz, presidential candidate and chief agitator in the upper chamber, exactly what he hoped to accomplish when the Senate GOP did not have 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster, much less 67 to override a veto by the Democratic president. And Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois tweeting Wednesday, after the Senate passed a bill to fund the government (including Planned Parenthood), "When our govt shut down in 2013, it cost U.S. $24 billion. We were elected to govern responsibly, not by crisis." And Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who tweeted "Troubling that a #governmentshutdown was even an option, causing great economic hardship to the 15,000 Alaskans employed by the fed. gov."
I don't doubt the sincerity or passion of conservatives fighting abortion. I don't even argue with the idea that by giving Planned Parenthood money for services like contraception, cancer screenings and STD tests, the federal government frees up money for the group to perform abortions. But the facts on the ground are stark. It will take a Republican Senate supermajority and a Republican president to get what conservatives want, and what they want does not have broad public support. That's the case whether the issue is defunding Planned Parenthood, curbing abortion or shutting the government.
Only 36 percent in a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll said more restrictive laws on abortion would be a step in the right direction. Majorities in that poll and two other new ones, meanwhile, said Planned Parenthood should continue to receive federal funds. One of the polls, from Quinnipiac University, found sentiment running 3 to 1 against shuttering the government over the issue. Only 23 percent favored a shutdown.
To cap off the bad-news week for the GOP, Planned Parenthood had a 47 percent positive rating in the NBC poll — the highest of any entity or person tested. Obama came closest at 46 percent, followed by the Democratic Party at 41 percent and Joe Biden at 40 percent. The most positively viewed on the Republican side were presidential candidate Ben Carson and the party itself, each at 29 percent.
Democrats have their own problems, but they are far more in step with mainstream America on a number of important issues — not least the idea that shutting down the federal government is an acceptable substitute for winning the elections you need to prevail.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.