Philip Klein

Philip Klein

Philip Klein

In the increasingly polarized climate of U.S. politics, liberals and conservatives are united on one thing: They hate wussiness, and they think their side is always dominated by a bunch of wusses who aren’t willing to be as ruthless as their political opponents.

The abhorrence of wussiness has become the driving force in U.S. politics.

When Democrats lose, liberals typically fault them for not taking a hard enough line against vicious Republican attacks (for instance, Michael Dukakis being portrayed as weak on crime in 1988’s Willie Horton ad, or John Kerry being attacked about his record in Vietnam by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth). On the right, however, you’ll find those who were convinced that Sen. John McCain could have beaten Barack Obama in 2008 if only he were willing to bring up Obama’s relationship with Jeremiah Wright.

During the Obama era, ideologues on both sides who were angry about perceived weakness, transformed politics.

An early liberal critique of Obama was that he was too eager to win over bipartisan support for his agenda and to appear to be within the acceptable mainstream, so he watered down policies. In a popular narrative at the time among liberals, the roughly $800 billion economic stimulus package was too small and was weighted too heavily toward tax cuts, and Obama didn’t fight hard enough for a public option during the healthcare fight. If only he used the type of strong-armed tactics associated with Lyndon Johnson, many on the left argued, he could have enacted a bolder liberal agenda.

Of course, from the conservative perspective, Obama and Democrats had steamrolled through deeply unpopular policies that grossly expanded the size and scope of government. Fed up with the type of Republicans who they saw as too willing to cut deals with Democrats, the Tea Party was born, and thrusted a wave of new Republicans into office in 2010, who took over the House of Representatives with a promise of fighting Obama’s agenda.

In the years that followed, conservatives pressed Republicans to fight Obama tooth and nail – to block his legislation and hold up his nominees. This eagerness to fight prompted high stakes face-offs over raising the debt ceiling, extending the Bush era tax levels, and funding Obamacare.

Frustrated with what they saw as unprecedented Republican obstruction, liberals then lobbied hard for Harry Reid to nuke the filibuster – which he did, clearing the way for presidential nominees to coast through the Senate with a simple majority vote. Liberals often lamented that Obama tried too earnestly to negotiate with Republicans, so they prodded him in his second term, and particularly after Republicans took over the Senate in 2014, to do more through executive action. Obama, aggressively used executive authority to tweak his healthcare law, rework immigration policy, impose rules on carbon emissions, and implement a legislatively unapproved deal with Iran that gutted sanctions overwhelming passed by Congress.

Though Republicans were able to prevent Obama from passing any major legislation for the last six years of his presidency, they weren’t able to prevent Obamacare from going into effect or to block all of his executive actions. So, while Democrats remember the Obama era as one in which Republicans fought everything the president wanted to do, for many conservatives, the era was indicative of GOP lawmakers constantly caving into Obama without a fight.

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It was within this environment that President Trump was able to thrive. Despite his eclectic set of views that often clashed with conservative orthodoxy, many primary voters saw in Trump somebody who wasn’t afraid to stand up to political correctness and thus would be willing to fight the media and crush liberals. The other candidates came from the same class of elected Republicans who conservatives saw as the ones who failed to stop Obama, and who were too easily cowed by the liberal media.

Now that Trump is in office, many conservatives are cheering on his robust assertion of executive authority. And Trump’s brashness, in turn, is prompting liberals to demand complete resistance from Congressional Democrats. In the upcoming battle to confirm Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, if Democrats filibuster, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be under heavy pressure from conservatives to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, under the assumption that Democrats would not hesitate to do the same if the system were reversed.

The dueling narratives from conservatives and liberals about which political party is actually comprised of wusses is only likely to lead to a further polarization of politics. Trump’s presidency makes it much more likely that somebody from the Sen. Elizabeth Warren wing will be the Democratic Party’s next presidential nominee (assuming Sean Penn doesn’t run). It also makes it much more likely that the next Democratic president will further ramp up the use of executive power and that a future Democratic Senate would move even more aggressively to squelch the filibuster.

Over time, a long-term trend that expands executive power and makes it easier for legislation to move through the Senate should be worrisome for those who want to limit the size and scope of government.

Philip Klein is a columnist with the Washington Examiner.

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