We Don’t Have to Pretend Republicans Know What They’re Doing
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp isn’t playing three-dimensional chess with the state’s new election law. He’s just being a Republican.
Late last month Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a new election bill that would give the Republican-appointed State Election Board unprecedented powers over county election boards and put in place new restrictions on absentee voting, including new photo ID requirements, shorter periods to request an absentee ballot, and fewer drop box locations available to submit absentee ballots.
The new legislation is a direct response to Democrats sweeping the state in national elections last November and in January of this year, even though Kemp spent much of last fall being bullied by former President Trump to overturn Georgia’s results based on baseless claims of voter fraud. Kemp was not the only Republican elected official to push back against Trump’s ridiculous claims, but Trump has been especially eager to punish Kemp with a Trump-backed primary challenger in next year’s elections.
Given the likelihood of facing a tough primary challenge, some in the media have speculated that Kemp signed the unpopular and largely unnecessary election bill into law in order to consolidate Republican support behind his reelection bid. When Major League Baseball (MLB) announced last Friday that it would move the All-Star game out of Georgia in response to the new election law, Kemp accused MLB of caving to the “wishes of Stacey Abrams and Joe Biden.” Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted in a tweet one day after MLB’s announcement that an aide to former Republican Gov. Nathan Deal told him “Stacey Abrams couldn’t have done more for Brian Kemp’s re-election hopes if she’d written a $10 million check to his super PAC.” Similarly, the New York Time’s Maggie Haberman tweeted that one “smart” Republican told her that the new election law would provide Kemp “something of a shield against Trump’s vengeance mission” to find someone to run against him in next year’s primary.
The Republicans talking to Bluestein and Haberman would like the rest of us to think that Kemp’s decision to spin the fallout over the new election law into a cancel-culture-run-amok story was a strategic move made in serious consideration of what Republican primary voters really want. In fact, their statements sound a lot like the statements Trump-aligned conservatives would offer up to explain something the former president did that clearly hurt Republicans in an election or in their legislative negotiations with Democrats on the Hill. As Five Thirty Eight’s chief editor Nate Silver opined back in 2017 when Trump lashed out at the National Football League (NFL) over the anti-police brutality protests, the three-dimensional chess coverage of President Trump refused to engage a much simpler explanation for his behavior: Lacking impulse control, Trump falls back on his narcissistic tendencies to attack his perceived political enemies (including those like Kemp who advance his anti-democratic agenda) and to elevate those whom he thinks are his real friends.
In other words, President Trump didn’t really know what he was doing.
To be sure, I don’t doubt there are conscious efforts among Republicans to rally their voters to the polls by supplying them an endless stream of white male identity outrage. But Kemp isn’t attacking MLB or Delta Air Lines because he knows this is the fight Republican primary voters want to have. He’s just doubling down on the GOP being completely out-of-touch and uninterested in backing policies that would improve the political participation and material wellbeing of most Americans, including their own voters.
To put this another way: Kemp isn’t doing anything today that he would not do if he weren’t up for reelection next year. Republicans have become convinced that the only way they can appeal to voters is to defer to whatever feigned controversy Fox News pundits are foaming at the mouth about because they have no ideas and no interest in making government work.
Political reporters are biased toward giving Republican decision-making more credibility than it deserves. Part of this stems from a deeper bias toward “horse-race” news coverage in which Republicans and Democrats are treated like political animals motivated by nothing more than the glory of winning the next legislative fight or political scandal or election contest. But for the most part, it’s just easier for those covering the parties to believe that Republicans are principled political actors who always have a good reason for what they do even when their actions harm other people.
But there was no good reason for Kemp to sign an unpopular bill and lash out at its critics in corporate America, just as there was no good reason for Senate Republicans to uniformly oppose giving Americans more covid-19 relief and states millions of dollars to save jobs and safely reopen schools. The tell-tale sign? Some Republicans are taking credit for provisions in the American Rescue Act that help their states.
The same Republicans who assumed it would be politically safe to kill a vote to give Americans $2,000 stimulus checks just days before the January 5 Georgia Senate run-off elections shouldn’t be taken seriously when they claim Kemp is playing smart politics by picking fights with MLB and Georgia companies over the new election law. Whether or not he faces a serious primary challenge next year, Kemp will continue to do what Republicans do when they’ve become accustomed to power they no longer believe they need to work for — to punish those who try to vote them out. Sometimes the simplest explanation is the correct one.