It was a big deal inside the Beltway when Joe Scarborough told Stephen Colbert last week that he was quitting the Republican Party. An oracle of Washington conventional wisdom, the co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe had been a lifelong Republican, representing a crimson Florida congressional district during the Newt Gingrich era. In an interview following his announcement, Scarborough said the “last straw” for him was the Senate healthcare bill, which he described as the “heartless” product of a “shameful” and secretive process. “At the end of the day,” he said, “I just couldn’t defend them anymore, after 20, 25 years.”
With that, Morning Joe swam away from Republican Island.
Scarborough did not leave because he had become a liberal. He left because his party is no longer conservative. As many movement conservatives feared and as we predicted last year, Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party completed a transformation decades in the making and turned the party over to a reactionary core of voters invested in staving off the advance of Barack Obama’s America. Politics on the Island reflects this reaction. There is no appetite for advancing a constructive agenda. Negotiation with those who disagree with you is regarded as surrender.
Case in point: days before Morning Joe’s departure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened to turn the senate right-side up and enter into negotiations with Democrats to fix the Affordable Care Act if the party was unable on its second try to approve the legislation repealing Obamacare that forced Scarborough out of the party. Any such discussions would have to take place on the mainland. This would be viewed as a betrayal on the Island, making McConnell’s stated openness to negotiation a tactic to pressure recalcitrant Republicans to swallow the poison that would permit the party to fulfill its most visible and toxic promise to its voters. Unlike Morning Joe, Republican officials have to face those voters and do not have the luxury of dismissing their reactionary impulses. McConnell knows that running the senate the way it is designed to operate would signal surrender on a matter so visceral that it is bound to generate primary challenges across the Island. In fact, with the apparent collapse of the senate bill last night, McConnell has not followed through on his “promise” to negotiate. He was just turning up the heat through the threat of politics as usual.
Meanwhile, Morning Joe is looking for a way to restore the old-fashioned politics of left vs. right. He knows this is impossible to accomplish within the confines of a reactionary party. Yet he landed on the political mainland as an independent—a man without a party—because there is no conservative party on the mainland. There are Republicans here, of course, but they are hostages to the politics of the Island. At the moment, we are all hostages to the politics of the Island.
Morning Joe sees “very, very tough years ahead” for his erstwhile party and wonders aloud if it can survive Donald Trump. He is right to wonder. Scarborough’s defection, as difficult as it may have been for him personally, came at relatively little cost. He still has his top-rated cable program and his influence inside the Beltway is undimmed. Contrast this with the impossible dilemma facing elected Republicans who have to cast a healthcare vote and the self-immolating nature of the Republican hold on power becomes clear. But no one relinquishes power voluntarily, so Republicans will cling tightly to their Island base until they are consumed by the fire they have created, leaving them at last with the incentive to re-emerge as a conservative party. In the long run, this is the only way any of us will survive Donald Trump.
Morning Joe left Republican Island and found there is no institutional home for conservatives on the mainland. Elected Republicans will not follow him until that changes.