It’s only March, but I think the phrase of the year has already been coined. Oxford and Merriam-Webster have their Word of the Year, and Politifact has its Lie of the Year. As far as I know, “phrase of the year” isn’t really a thing. But I’m making it one now and awarding it to Lawfare blog’s Benjamin Wittes for this: “malevolence tempered by incompetence.”
Wittes used the phrase in a post he wrote back in January, assessing the rollout of Trump’s first travel ban. The phrase was actually in the post’s title : “Malevolence Tempered by Incompetence: Trump’s Horrifying Executive Order on Refugees and Visas.” The post was widely shared on social media, gaining broad attention & appreciation, I think, for Wittes’ blunt appraisal of the ban. The entry opened with this:
The malevolence of President Trump’s Executive Order on visas and refugees is mitigated chiefly—and perhaps only—by the astonishing incompetence of its drafting and construction.
Part of the malevolence Wittes saw in the ban was that its motivation was – in his view – clearly based in bigotry & religious discrimination. Additionally, he felt that the ban was done not for national security purposes but to make a “political point.” This was mitigated, he explained, by the fact that the Trump team was so utterly incompetent in its drafting of the ban, that they made it a tremendously easy target for lawsuits. Wittes goes into a lot more detail supporting & explaining his thesis – if you have a chance, you should read it. He does not hold back, and it’s pretty righteous.
Wittes’ wonderful turn of phrase kept playing in my mind last week as I watched the GOP’s health care debacle come to its ignominious conclusion. Once again, I thought, we were seeing malevolence tempered by incompetence. Only this time, the description didn’t belong to just Trump and his inner circle. It was also Paul Ryan and the entire Republican Party whose cruelty was mitigated only by their ineptitude.
The failure of the GOP to pass an Obamacare “repeal & replace” bill after 7 years of repeating that mantra non-stop, after 4 rounds of election cycles run on that slogan, was truly stunning. But it also wasn’t the least bit surprising to anyone who’d paid attention to the Republican Party for those 7 years. Seven years in which they’d failed to ever coalesce around a replacement plan. 7 (plus) years in which they’d failed to contribute toward achieving anything productive.
Instead they spent those years lobbing proverbial bomb after proverbial bomb, while never doing any of the prep work needed to get ready for when their moment with a President willing to sign their bill arrived. Paul Ryan and the other GOP leaders spent those years nurturing the base’s rage & anti-government resentment and catering their legislative tactics to the angriest, most rebellious wing of the Party. They spent that time becoming experts in how to stop government from working.
Now that it’s their turn to be the government, they’ve discovered that their governing muscles have completely atrophied. And the most stridently anti-government voices in the Party – accustomed to being accomodated – aren’t about to go away quietly. As Brian Beutler put it in his excellent dissection of why the GOP ended up floundering so badly on health care, “the ruthless pursuit of power left an entire party unable to exercise it now that it’s theirs.” The turmoil of the last few weeks has even led a few members of the party to admit that maybe they’re not prepared to govern:
“I think we have to do some soul-searching internally to determine whether or not we are even capable as a governing body,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, in the bitter aftermath of the health care debacle.
And that’s why I think what we saw with the health care bill will not be an isolated incident. Republicans are going to struggle to get their competing factions to work together, and to re-learn the arduous process of passing bills (because it takes more than just writing a bill to get it passed), and to figure out how to work with a completely inexperienced, undisciplined and often disinterested & policy-ignorant President.
Next up on their agenda, Republicans say, is tax reform. This was always going to be a heavy lift, but the failure of the health care bill will make passing a comprehensive tax reform bill even more difficult (I may have more to come on that in a future post). They’ll still likely be able to pass some specific tax changes, but the sort of wholesale reform they’ve been dreaming about will be a major challenge. So I think Wittes’ words will continue to echo . . . GOP policies may often be cruel, but we can hope that they’ll be – at least in some instances – tempered by incompetence.
HOWEVER: to be continued tomorrow with a word of caution that we can only count on this incompetence to protect us from so much . . .
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