I admire Kinzinger’s fighting spirit. I once shared it. I recall saying something very similar in 2016 when Trump was marching through the Republican primaries: It’s my party, and I won’t leave it. My hope was that a decisive win for Hillary Clinton would bring the GOP to its senses. That obviously did not happen, so the day after the 2016 election, I re-registered as an independent after a lifetime as a Republican.
It is a decision I have not for a moment regretted, because the GOP has become even more of a horror show than I anticipated. As former House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) notes in a new memoir, the “crazies” have taken over. There are vanishingly few John McCain-style Republicans left; Kinzinger (a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard) is one of the few. The party’s center of gravity has shifted to kooks such as Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (who blamed Jewish space lasers for wildfires) and low-rent hucksters such as Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (who reportedly shared nude photos of his sexual conquests with his colleagues and is under investigation for possible sex trafficking).
Most Republicans don’t care that Trump locked up children, cozied up to white supremacists, tear-gassed peaceful protesters, benefited from Russian help in both of his campaigns, egregiously mishandled the pandemic, incited a violent attack on the Capitol and even faced fraud complaints from his own donors. A new Reuters-Ipsos poll finds that 81 percent of Republicans have a favorable impression of Trump. Wait. It gets worse: 60 percent say the 2020 election was stolen from him, only 28 percent say he is even partly to blame for the Capitol insurrection, and 55 percent say that the Capitol attack “was led by violent left-wing protestors trying to make Trump look bad.”
This is a portrait of a party that can’t be saved — at least in the foreseeable future. The GOP remains a cult of personality for the worst president in U.S. history. It has become a bastion of irrationality, conspiracy mongering, racism, nativism and anti-scientific prejudices.
So what should a sane, center-right voter — someone who might have voted for the GOP in the past — do under those circumstances?
There has been talk of forming a third party, but it’s not likely to succeed in our winner-take-all political system. Smaller parties flourish only in countries with proportional representation. There hasn’t been a successful third party in the United States since the 1850s, when the GOP arose out of the wreckage of the Whig Party. We can and should undermine the political duopoly with reforms such as multi-member congressional districts, ranked-choice voting and nonpartisan primaries. Such steps, which are being pushed by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), would make moderate candidates and even third-party candidates more viable.
But we won’t transform our political system anytime soon. In the meantime, centrists have a binary choice: Support either an increasingly extremist and obstructionist Republican Party or a Democratic Party that, under President Biden, is working to solve our most pressing problems.
Biden has turbocharged vaccinations with better management: The seven-day average of new vaccination doses has gone from 892,399 on Inauguration Day to almost 3 million today. He has boosted the economic recovery with a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill; the unemployment rate is down to 6 percent. Now he is pushing a $2 trillion plan to rebuild our dilapidated infrastructure — something that Trump only talked about doing.
It’s possible to oppose Biden’s plans on fiscal conservative grounds, but Republicans have no standing left on that issue after supporting Trump’s $1.9 trillion tax cut during an economic expansion. Likewise, Republicans have lost all credibility on free trade by supporting Trump’s trade wars and on foreign policy by backing Trump’s neo-isolationism. What do they have left? Scare-mongering rhetoric (every Democratic initiative is a sign of “socialism”) and culture wars (Dr. Seuss, Major League Baseball) to distract their base.
But while Biden hasn’t gotten any GOP votes in Congress for his agenda yet, he has won broad approval from the country at large. At 53.1 percent, Biden’s approval rating is higher than Trump’s ever was. Polls show that 73 percent approve of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus and 60 percent of his handling of the economy. There is also broad support for his infrastructure plan, with 64 percent backing tax hikes on corporations to pay for it.
Biden is governing from the “new center,” while Republicans are increasingly catering to the far right with shrill, divisive rhetoric and antidemocratic actions such as bills to restrict voting. Under those circumstances, those of us on the center-right can’t afford a third-party flirtation. We need to become Biden Republicans.