George Will has been a reactionary for longer than Beto O’Rourke has been alive. Will was an adviser to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, climate change denier, and fierce opponent of Social Security. His hatred of progressivism is so deep and comprehensive, he may be the only nationally syndicated columnist who has called for the abolition of both the minimum wage and denim pants.
But last summer, Will advised his readers to “vote against the GOP this November” — no matter where they lived.
“The principle: The congressional Republican caucuses must be substantially reduced,” Will explained. “So substantially that their remnants, reduced to minorities, will be stripped of the Constitution’s Article I powers that they have been too invertebrate to use against the current wielder of Article II powers.” In other words: Congress’s failure to check Donald Trump’s abuses of power represented a threat to the republic itself — and thus, Republican voters had a duty to put country over party, and empower the president’s political adversaries.
Will was not the only lifelong conservative to render this verdict. Max Boot, a neoconservative intellectual who once decried Brown v. Board of Education as an attack on the Constitution — and opposition to the Iraq War as mindless isolationism — wrote in October 2018, “Vote against all Republicans. Every single one.”
Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke refused to endorse this advice.
When O’Rourke visited Texas’s 23rd Congressional District last August, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast gave the GOP a one-in-four chance of retaining control of the House. Which is to say: At that time, there was (ostensibly) a 25 percent chance that Republicans would pay no electoral price for abetting two years of Trumpian corruption and misrule; rushing deeply unpopular health-care and tax bills through Congress with minimal democratic oversight (unsuccessfully in one case, successfully in the other); and campaigning for reelection on a mix of xenophobic demagoguery and bald-faced lies about their party’s fiscal priorities. Had this occurred, congressional Republicans would have received confirmation that gerrymandering had insulated them so thoroughly from democratic accountability, even a historic wave election couldn’t loosen their grip on power. There is no telling what a unified Republican government would have done with such knowledge.
Given this context, one might have assumed that O’Rourke had come to the 23rd — a GOP-held district that Hillary Clinton had won in 2016 — to endorse the Democratic candidate for the district’s House seat, Gina Ortiz Jones, an Iraq War veteran with a long and distinguished record of public service.
In reality, O’Rourke did quite the opposite. As the New York Times reports:
[A Democratic Party] county chairwoman posed an uncomfortable question. Mr. O’Rourke had not endorsed Ms. Jones. In fact, he had elevated her Republican opponent, Representative Will Hurd, with frequent praise and, most memorably, a live-streamed bipartisan road trip that helped jump-start their midterm campaigns. Would Mr. O’Rourke support the Democrat?
He would not.
“This is a place where my politics and my job and my commitment to this country come into conflict,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “I’m going to put country over party.”
…In Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, his choice was more than symbolic. Mr. Hurd won by fewer than 1,000 votes, and many voters and local activists hold Mr. O’Rourke — whose success helped lift down-ballot candidates across the state — largely responsible for Ms. Jones’s defeat.
Will Hurd is a (relatively) moderate Republican. As a representative of a border district, Hurd has been a prominent critic of Trump’s immigration policies. But he also votes with his Republican colleagues more than 90 percent of the time, criticized the FBI for declining to prosecute Hillary Clinton in 2016, aided Devin Nunes’s efforts to discredit the Mueller investigation, and opposes federal funding for abortion services. More critically, Hurd would like the Republican Party to control the House of Representatives. Had the GOP retained control of the chamber, he would have voted to let conservative Republicans decide what legislation Congress can and cannot vote on. Given the stakes of the 2018 election, his personal “moderation” should have been irrelevant to O’Rourke — especially since it was not inconceivable that the outcome of the race in that district could determine House control.
By boosting Hurd, and spurning Ortiz Jones, O’Rourke did not put “country before party”; he put himself before both.
Weeks later, Biden followed suit:
Joseph R. Biden Jr. swept into Benton Harbor, Mich., three weeks before the November elections, in the midst of his quest to reclaim the Midwest for Democrats. He took the stage at Lake Michigan College as Representative Fred Upton, a long-serving Republican from the area, faced the toughest race of his career.
But Mr. Biden was not there to denounce Mr. Upton. Instead, he was collecting $200,000 from the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan to address a Republican-leaning audience, according to a speaking contract obtained by The New York Times and interviews with organizers … Mr. Biden stunned Democrats and elated Republicans by praising Mr. Upton while the lawmaker looked on from the audience. Alluding to Mr. Upton’s support for a landmark medical-research law, Mr. Biden called him a champion in the fight against cancer — and “one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with.”
… The greatest impact of Mr. Biden’s speech, however, was outside the lecture hall. His remarks about Mr. Upton ricocheted through Michigan’s Sixth Congressional District. Mr. Upton alluded to Mr. Biden’s praise in a debate with Mr. Longjohn the next day, and his campaign sent out a mailer stressing Mr. Upton’s bipartisan streak, including Mr. Biden’s description of him as “the reason we’re going to beat cancer.”
A business-backed Republican group, Defending Main Street, ran digital ads on Facebook showing a grinning Mr. Biden and the crucial quote — “Fred Upton is one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with” — above a mock version of the former vice president’s signature.
Biden declined to endorse the Democratic candidate Matt Longjohn in his race to oust Upton from Congress. Instead, “uncle Joe” vouched not only for Upton’s bipartisan credentials, but painted him as a champion of the sick and infirm — despite the fact that the Michigan Republican played a lead role in trying to pass legislation that would have thrown 20 million Americans off of health insurance.
Upton ultimately won his race by less than 5 percentage points.
If George Will and Max Boot recognized the importance of opposing all congressional Republicans in 2018, shouldn’t the Democratic Party’s 2020 nominee be someone who recognized that, too?
To be sure, every candidate has flaws and liabilities. And defeating Donald Trump must surely be the Democratic Party’s No. 1 objective. Further, while O’Rourke failed to endorse Ortiz Jones, there is little question that his remarkable Senate campaign aided down-ballot Democratic candidates all across the Lone Star State.
But the Democrats have no shortage of qualified, appealing candidates. And all available polling suggests that Trump will struggle to beat just about any of them. Meanwhile, the many virtues of O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign make a stronger case for his candidacy against John Cornyn in 2020 than for his competing with more experienced and progressive Democrats — who did not claim that they had a patriotic duty to aid an incumbent Republican last year — for Team Blue’s presidential nomination.
Ultimately, what makes Biden and O’Rourke’s conduct disqualifying is not the effect it may (or may not) have had in 2018, but rather, what it says about how they will govern in 2021. If Democrats want to treat climate change as an existential threat — and health care and the franchise as inalienable rights — then they will need to treat the Republican Party as an enemy.
Bipartisan overtures will never persuade congressional Republicans to vote against the interests of fossil fuel companies, or back dramatic expansions in public health insurance, or dismantle election laws that give their coalition wildly disproportionate power. Only a unified, Democratic government — that is willing to ruthlessly prioritize ideological goals over bipartisan comity — will have any chance of overcoming our legislative system’s copious veto points, and passing anything resembling a proportionate response to our nation’s climate, health-care, and democratic crises into law.
Our country paid a big price for the Democrats’ failure to do this the last time around. Had 51 Senate Democrats been willing to kill the legislative filibuster in 2009, they could have passed cap-and-trade, a version of the ACA that included a public option, a stimulus package proportional to the severity of the Great Recession, more foreclosure relief, card check for unions, and citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants on a party-line vote. In so doing, they quite likely would have prevented Donald Trump from ever becoming president; add a few million more immigrants to the electorate — and a couple percentage points to the rate of private-sector unionization — and you end up with a country that is both more democratic and more Democratic.
Instead, Barack Obama & Co. “put country over party,” honored procedural norms, sought bipartisan buy-in for major legislation — and delivered our country into the hands of a madman.
There is nothing inherently wrong with bipartisanship, only with venerating it in our nation’s current context. The anthropocene is not a normal epoch. And the Republicans are not a normal political party. The GOP is an institution that baldly lies to its own voters, while disenfranchising Democratic ones. It is a party that knows its ideological commitments cannot prevail in democratic competition, and has therefore forfeited its commitment to democratic rule. Seeking common ground with this movement will not heal our republic; only defeating it will. At least, this is what George W. Bush’s former speechwriter seems to think.
Whoever leads the Democratic Party in 2020 should think the same.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Fred Upton’s 2018 challenger.