But when they’re out of power? That’s when they really shine. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, is not a particularly good legislator, but he’s a wizard at grinding government to a halt.
Likewise, the extraordinary propaganda apparatus of the conservative media is made for anger and outrage, which isn’t about getting things done but about ginning up indignation at what Democrats are doing.
So with a new Democratic president and Congress coming in, Republicans should be back in their happy place, ready to make his life miserable, undermine the country’s faith in its government and whip their followers into a frenzy, the glorious holy war renewed once again.
But this time, it might be harder than usual.
The first and biggest problem they face is President Biden himself. During the 2020 primaries, many liberals — I’ll include myself here — were lukewarm toward him, hoping for a nominee with a more expansive progressive vision. But the party’s voters decided to go with the familiar old white guy with a reputation as a moderate, on the theory that he’d be most palatable to the general electorate.
I’ll admit it: I was wrong, and they were right.
One of the consequences was that unlike in every campaign in decades, the GOP did not try to portray the Democratic nominee as a sinister villain with secret plans to destroy America and kill your family. Why not? My guess is that they polled and focus-grouped it, and it didn’t work. Voters might not have been bursting with love for Biden, but by and large they saw him as a decent guy who knows his way around government, whether they agreed with his particular proposals or not.
So the best substitute for the usual attacks was to say not that Biden was a monster who sought to plunge America into an unceasing nightmare, but that he was too weak to resist others on the left who had their own plans to do just that. Antifa! Uppity black people asking not to be shot by police! Cities in flames, with the fire to consume the suburbs next!
That didn’t work either. So there isn’t all that much reason to think it’s going to work now.
After spending four years in a cult of personality, the right needs its opposite: a villain its base finds unfathomably loathsome and terrifying, who can be the focus of all that rage and fear. They had it with Bill Clinton, and then with Barack Obama, and then with Hillary Clinton. But even their own audiences just don’t hate Biden all that much.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean Republicans and conservative media can’t turn that mild dislike into burning hatred. It’s what they’re good at, and they’ll give it their best shot. But there isn’t much reason to think their persuasive efforts will extend outside the most fervent Republicans.
And beyond Biden himself as a personality, something else is different now.
That outrage machine works not only by getting conservatives worked up so that, for instance, they’ll turn out to vote in the midterm elections, but also by creating fear in Democrats, fear that alters those Democrats’ behavior. But I don’t know that I've ever seen a time when Democrats were less afraid of Republicans.
Yes, there are plenty of moderate Democrats who advocate centrist solutions and worry about ticking off their constituents if they go too far to the left. But as a whole, Democrats now have a deeper understanding of the dynamics of Republican opposition than they used to. That includes Biden himself and those around him.
They’ve learned from the mistakes of the Obama years, including the way his administration and congressional Democrats negotiated with themselves and assumed that substantive concessions and good-faith bargaining could get Republicans to support legislation that would be of political benefit to a Democratic president.
The Biden team is not in the grip of that delusion. All indications are that they start from the assumption that Republican opposition will be total; they’re willing to take a shot at getting some Republican support for, say, a covid-19 relief package, but they won’t waste too much time chasing it.
Just as important, they aren’t assuming that if Republicans scream and shout about Democratic legislation, the screaming and shouting will persuade the public and drain support for whatever it is the administration is trying to do. That loud opposition can be treated as background noise, something unavoidable.
Every day of this presidency, people in conservative media will be saying that Biden is terrible, his policy ideas are disastrous, and they’re hurtling us toward a hellish socialist dystopia. That will be the case no matter what Biden does or doesn’t do — and Democrats finally get it. What matters is whether their initiatives get passed, and then deliver tangible benefits to people.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that Republican opposition will fail; political outcomes are always uncertain, and things will happen that today we can’t foresee. But the right is facing some new challenges, and Republicans might have to give their machine of opposition and outrage an overhaul.
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