The big news for the GOP majority on Capitol Hill last week came as a tweet — and it was not from President Trump.
Matt Drudge, the proprietor of The Drudge Report, the conservative website which played a leading role in the rise of the new president, raised eyebrows with this note:
“Republican Party should be sued for fraud. No discussion of tax cuts now. Just lots of crazy. Back to basics, guys!”
Later he pointed to the inability of the Trump White House to immediately dismantle President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, asking “meanwhile, is Obamacare penalty tax still in place?”
Drudge’s scolding was amplified by another leading voice in the successful Republican takeover of Congress, my Fox News colleague Sean Hannity.
Hannity called the Republicans in Congress “spineless, gutless, timid politicians.” He lambasted them for failing to keep their promise to kill off ObamaCare. During campaign season, Republicans — and their sirens in the media — demonized ObamaCare to win the votes that enabled the GOP to maintain its majorities in the House and Senate. The strategy also helped Trump win control of the White House.
Hannity and Drudge are among the loudest — if not the most powerful — voices speaking to the hard right base. Their unforgiving attacks on Obama, Democrats and the old-school Republican establishment stirred the populist resentments that shaped today’s Congress.
So, the speed with which these conservative media titans have turned on their creations — the politicians they helped put in power at the Capitol and White House — is a sign of the deep divisions already splitting the ruling Republican majority in Washington.
The right-wing media-led assault that won elections with the promise to disrupt Washington politics is now confronting reality. As the governing party, the GOP is now accountable for what comes after the party disrupts and tears down existing programs.
But note that the fire is not evenly distributed.
While Drudge is not happy with what he considers the slow pace of attack coming from the Trump White House, both he and Hannity are aiming their strongest shots at Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, Democrats are smiling as they watch Republican members of Congress come increasingly under siege at town hall meetings. Voters are alarmed at the idea that their ObamaCare benefits might be stripped away by the GOP, and no comparable services offered in their place.
The public anger at the town halls and Trump’s high public disapproval rating — 53 percent of adults give him the thumbs-down, according to the most recent CNN/ORC survey — have led to the rising conservative media discontent.
Less than two months into what Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called the “dawn of a new, unified Republican government,” the discontent on the right is revealing the shallow limits of negative ads and sloganeering at rowdy rallies.
Ambitious campaign rhetoric about cutting taxes, for example, is now entangled in the reality of negotiations over a “border adjustment tax” and the potential for a trade war, sparked by the tariffs on imports promised by Trump.
As for doing away with ObamaCare, the impassioned GOP promise to repeal now faces the reality that after almost seven years the party has no plan strong enough to attract enough votes to pass both the House and Senate.
Trump admitted last week that repeal of ObamaCare is now an issue to be dealt with down the road: by the end of the year at the earliest and possibly in 2018. All the president could promise is that “it’ll take till sometime into next year but we’re certainly going to be in the process.”
The president also noted that he has discovered the process is “very complicated.”
One source of that complication is division between the Trump White House and veteran Republican leaders, the so-called establishment.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which deals with healthcare, put the populist Republican call for Trump to repeal ObamaCare immediately in perspective this way:
“No one is talking about repealing anything until there is a concrete practical alternative to offer Americans in its place.”
Tax reform and ObamaCare are not the only issues dividing Republicans in power from the media voices that once championed them.
When Trump recently defended Russian President Vladimir Putin against charges that he is a “killer,” by arguing that “there are a lot of killers – you think our country’s so innocent?” – MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, responded angrily.
“President Trump’s claim that America is morally on par with Russia’s corrupt dystopian regime was so historically ignorant that even timid Republicans felt compelled to speak out this week,” Scarborough wrote in The Washington Post. “Perhaps that is because remaining silent in the face of such a morally disorienting claim would make them look like fools.”
Scarborough’s critique reflects the split between the Trump White House and several Republicans in Congress on maintaining sanctions against Russia.
Last week, Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) actually joined Senate Democrats to introduce legislation to block the Trump administration from loosening economic sanctions on Russia without first getting approval from Congress.
Even Trump’s issuance of executive orders to create the image of keeping his campaign promises is being derided in some quarters as “small ball” and “mundane,” in the words of Gregory Korte in USA Today.
Attacking ObamaCare once rallied the GOP base. Now, failure to act on those campaign attacks has Drudge tweeting that Republicans “only know how to be opposition not lead! DANGER.”
Yes, danger for Republicans.