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Partisanship is a helluva drug

Paul Ryan (L), speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence (C), and President-Elect Donald Trump leave the stage after speaking to supporters at a Thank You Tour 2016 rally on December 13, 2016 in West Allis, Wisconsin.
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Paul Ryan (L), speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence (C), and President-Elect Donald Trump leave the stage after speaking to supporters at a Thank You Tour 2016 rally on December 13, 2016 in West Allis, Wisconsin.

Partisanship, political scientist Brendan Nyhan likes to say, is a helluva drug. Let's look at some of its effects.

At National Review, Tim Alberta has a deep dive into the House Freedom Caucus's thinking in the era of Donald Trump. You remember the Freedom Caucus — they're the debt-obsessed conservative revolutionaries who thought John Boehner such a squish they toppled him from power.

A week after the election, Rep. Raúl Labrador, a key caucus member, warned that his colleagues would go no easier on Trump than they did on Obama. They fought debt then; they will fight debt now. Everything must be paid for.

"If Trump doesn't find a way to pay for [his bills], the majority of us, if not all of us, are going to vote against it," Labrador said.

But that was just after the election. Time and reflection appears to be softening the caucus's stance. "Their thinking has shifted in the weeks since," Alberta reports. "According to several members, there has been informal talk of accepting a bill that's only 50 percent paid for, with the rest of the borrowing being offset down the road by 'economic growth.'"

As Alberta archly notes, "It's an arrangement Republicans would never have endorsed under a President Hillary Clinton, and a slippery slope to go down with Trump."

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Are Republicans Trumpists or conservatives?

We are about to learn whether Republicans are more addicted to power or to ideas. This is, it's worth noting, a live debate. In the Bush years, the GOP cut taxes, expanded Medicare, and started two wars without paying for a dime of it. Then after Barack Obama took office, Republicans became very worried about budget discipline.

Fiscal conservatism, liberals complained, seemed to mean Republicans could rack up debt for any reason while Democrats couldn't even borrow to save the economy during a financial collapse (which is, for the record, exactly the time you would want to debt finance).

But the GOP swore otherwise. The Tea Party, they said, was a correction to the regrettable excesses of the aughts. Bush-era Republicans had gone Washington and become addicted to power rather than conservatism. They had betrayed their own ideas and were now being punished by their own voters. It wouldn't happen again. The opposition to Obama's debt financing was the principled stand of a chastened GOP, not a cynical ploy to trip up a Democratic president.

If House Republicans — and particularly the House Freedom Caucus, the most debt-obsessed of all House Republicans — decide that Trump only needs to pay half the cost of his plans, then there'll be no more mystery. Partisanship and power, not ideas and ideology, will have proven the GOP's real addiction.

Is crony capitalism a crisis or a governing philosophy?

It's not just fiscal policy, of course. During the Obama years, Republicans focused on the dangers of "crony capitalism" — government decisions that warp the normal functioning of the marketplace to reward politically powerful or ideologically aligned incumbents.

"Like a black hole, cronyism bends the economy toward the state, inexorably shifting wealth and opportunity from the public to policymakers," Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) warned in a 2014 speech before the Heritage Foundation. "The more power government amasses, the more privileges are bestowed on the government's friends, the more businesses invest in influence instead of innovation, the more advantages accrue to the biggest special interests with the most to spend on politics and the most to lose from fair competition."

Since winning election, Trump has made clear that he intends to bend the economy inexorably toward the will of the state — and towards his own interests, both political and personal. He has refused to sell off his businesses, instead entrusting them to his children, who remain his closest advisers. He's named Exxon's CEO Rex Tillerson, who has spent years negotiating business deals with foreign governments, to serve as his secretary of state. He's asked investor Carl Icahn to serve as a top adviser on regulations without demanding he step down from his businesses.

Nor is it just personnel. Republicans regularly slammed Obama for picking "winners and losers" in the economy, but Trump has taken this to a new level — he brags about shaming companies into retaining plants they intended to close, and has made clear that companies that align with his agenda will receive his favor and those that don't will feel his fury. Whether you admire Trump's focus on keeping jobs in America or not, it's undeniably crony capitalism. But after Trump announced these coups, Alberta notes that "the response from Republican leaders, including [Paul] Ryan, who for years has warned that the government should not pick winners and losers, was to celebrate."

The enemy of the opposing party's president is my friend.

There's an old line that partisanship stops at the water's edge — but of course it doesn't. Vladimir Putin's Russia has, in recent years, become more authoritarian at home and more confrontational with its neighbors and with the US. You would expect a traditionally Russo-skeptic party to turn hard against its old adversary. Instead, as Yochi Dreazen notes:

A new YouGov/Economist poll found an enormous surge of pro-Putin feelings in the aftermath of Trump's win. In July 2014, Republicans had a -66 net favorability view of Putin; in December 2016, that number is just -10. (Democrats have, unsurprisingly, moved in the opposite direction.)

Russia's relationship with the US didn't improve between 2014 and 2016. If anything, Putin took an even more hard-line position toward the US, stepping up his support for Assad, annexing the Crimea region of Ukraine, and blocking American-led efforts to end the civil war in South Sudan and other conflicts. What's changed is the rise of Donald Trump, a politician who speaks of Putin with undisguised admiration.

[...] Republicans once prided themselves on their rock-solid opposition to the Soviet Union and blasted Obama for trying to "reset" relations with Russia. That party now likes Putin more than it likes Obama, viewing a murderous foreign strongman (-10) more positively than it sees a twice-elected American president (-64).

News that Russia launched a (successful) cyber-espionage campaign to influence the American election has been treated with disbelief from Trump and only grudging interest from Republicans. The reason, as best as anyone can tell, is that Russia's intervention helped Trump, and Republicans see little upside in casting a shadow over the president-elect's unexpected victory. It is unimaginable that the GOP would react with such calm if it had been John Kerry who Russia helped in his contest with George W. Bush.

Ideology is supposed to protect against partisanship. It's failing.

When Nyhan compares partisanship to a drug, he's not kidding: There's vast evidence that partisanship changes how you look at the world, that it changes what you like and what you hate, that it changes what sounds like a good idea and what sounds like a bad one. Just as a few drinks can transform a dumb plan into a compelling adventure, the pull of partisanship can turn a party against its most deeply held commitments.

The salve here is supposed to be ideology. In the optimistic telling of American politics, partisanship is driven by ideas, and so allegiance to tribe is powered by a principled vision of a better world — if the tribe abandoned the vision, then the partisan would abandon the tribe. That's often a failing bet, but I had hoped Trump's presidency would prove the exception. As I wrote back in November:

Presidents are often thought of as "party leaders," but Trump does not have the relationships, the ideology, the institutional ties, or the deep networks that politicians usually need to win a major party's nomination. His path to the presidency began with a hostile takeover of the Republican Party's primary process — a strategy that worked at a moment when the GOP was unpopular, but leaves him with little goodwill to fall back on once he takes office.

None of this is to argue that congressional Republicans should force Trump to govern as a Democrat. Rather, it's to say congressional Republicans should insist Trump govern as a Republican and as a conservative. Letting the Trump administration spin off into corruption, kleptocracy, and incompetence doesn't serve the country, or the Republican Party.

I hoped Trump's outsider status, his clear lack of commitment to his own party, and his long history of personal and ideological unpredictability would blunt the loyalty Republican politicians felt to their president and underscore their commitment to the ideas they've spent so long fighting for. So far, though, it's not looking good.

Commentary by Ezra Klein, the editor-in-chief of Vox. Follow him on Twitter @ezraklein.

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