When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, the polling gap between political values of Republicans and Democrats was a mere fifteen points. Today, it has widened to 36 points—the greatest partisan divide in the United States in more than two decades. This is more than just the Democratic “resistance” spurred by Donald Trump’s election; it’s a reflection of how hard-line social conservatives have affected mainstream Republicans in the same way a flea can rattle a dog.
The itch for the old party is apparent in the criticisms of Trump by retiring Republican Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, and Bush’s not-so-subtle chastisement of politicians who will not denounce white supremacy. In a series of interviews published in Politico, former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said when historians review his tenure—which ended two years ago—“They’ll be talking about the end of the two-party system.” Boehner went on to blame the growing division on social media and talk show hosts who went “crazy right.” We got some of that here at home last week when Texas House Speaker Joe Straus announced he would not seek re-election, in no small part because the fight with what Boehner described as the “crazy right” had just gotten too “repetitive.”
But there’s something missing from Boehner’s list of causes for the breakdown of rational politics: The paid provocateurs who use prevarication and distortion to grow a distrust of government and establishment politicians among politically-active Christian fundamentalists and tea party libertarians.
Just look at the recent attacks on U.S. Senator John Cornyn by FreedomWorks and Empower Texans. Cornyn is one of those traditional Republicans of old—a fiscal, small government conservative. But that’s not the image a voter might take away from the criticism of Cornyn’s efforts to get federal funds for Hurricane Harvey recovery.
Cornyn’s sin, according to these groups, is that he has taken hostage the confirmation of Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee to be the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, until the president approves hurricane relief funds for Texas.(Cornyn has not set a dollar amount, but Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday gave the state’s congressional delegation a $61 billion list of needs.) One of the powers of Cornyn’s position as the majority whip is that he sets the schedule for when the Senate votes on confirming presidential nominees. But Congress cannot appropriate money for things like Texas hurricane relief unless it is designated by the president’s Office of Management and Budget.
It is not even that Cornyn opposes Vought’s confirmation. He’s just using it as leverage. After all, if you have the power to hold up a presidential nominee, what better nominee than one for the office that has control of the money you want for Hurricane Harvey relief?
Vought’s confirmation was already a cause for the Christian fundamentalist tea party movement. Using a blog post Vought wrote last year, liberal independent Senator Bernie Sanders turned questioned the nominee’s religious views during a confirmation hearing in June. “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology,” Vought wrote in support of Wheaton College’s decision to suspend a professor who said Muslims and Christians worshiped the same God. “They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” Many evangelicals thought Sanders had crossed the line when he asked Vought whether he believed Muslims and Jews are damned to Hell. Vought responded that he believes all people are worthy of “dignity and respect” because they are made in God’s image, but that only believers in Jesus can obtain salvation.
Cornyn’s decision immediately brought a cascade of opposition from conservatives. And though it’s not terribly surprising that knee-jerk conservatives in D.C. would put outrage politics ahead of the people of Texas, Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans jumped on the bandwagon. “Besides being senators, socialist Bernie Sanders and Republican John Cornyn share something in common: both are working against the appointment of a conservative budget hawk to the Office of Management and Budget,” Sullivan wrote. Sullivan once questioned “Cornyn’s rationale for opposing Vought,” but then later in the same article wrote that Cornyn just wanted “more cash for Texas shoved into the budget.”
I sent Sullivan a text message asking to talk, but did not hear back.
Sullivan has bedeviled Texas House elections in recent years by whipping up opposition primarily to Republicans who were not considered conservative enough, especially on issues such as private school vouchers and lowering taxes. To get an idea of how connected to Texas elections Empower Texans is, it’s funding and an affiliated foundation jumped from $1.9 million in 2013 to $3.4 million in 2014, that last major election year for Texas offices, and then fell back to $2.3 million the next year, according to IRS records. In 2015, Sullivan earned $195,000, according to Empower Texans’ IRS filings. (The chairman of Sullivan’s Empower Texans has been Midland oilman Tim Dunn, who also is widely believed to be the main source of funding for the group.) The Texas Ethics Commission investigated Sullivan for lobby and campaign finance violations but ended its effort in 2016 and dropped a lawsuit seeking to expose his group’s financial source.
Sullivan has been the main political opponent to Texas House Speaker Straus since he was first elected in 2009, and he was overjoyed when Straus announced he was not running for re-election next year. He joined with Jim Graham of Texas Right to Life to chortle over the political change in a YouTube video.
However, Empower Texans has been little more than a gadfly annoyance for Straus, but he alluded to them and groups like then in announcing his decision to not run again: “Certain groups that you are aware of are doing the same thing again for the sixth time, as some point it gets so repetitive…”
Although Straus his commonly referred to as a moderate Republican, he presided over a House that passed restrictions on abortion, blocked state funding of Planned Parenthood, gave us the voter identification law and sanctuary cities, and cut $5 billion from public education funding during a financial crisis in 2011. By any measure of Texas politics from 1978 through the middle of the 2000s, Straus is not a moderate member of the party. In the era of bigotry and outrage, though, Straus is a Republican in name only for right wing groups only because he stood in the way of private school vouchers, tax cuts that would have harmed rural governments and a discriminatory bathroom bill that would have dampened efforts to attract new businesses to Texas.
Politics often is called a marketplace of ideas that compete for sales. But as the attacks on John Cornyn and Joe Straus prove, sometimes the hawkers in the marketplace are just trying to sell rotten fruit.