Kristof and Collins

In “The Party of No Way!” Mr. Kristof points out the blindingly obvious, that the G.O.P. used to be serious and prudent, but today it’s less about governing than about obstructing.  Ms. Collins, in “The Secret Side of Donald Trump,” considers a never-ending search for the least-bad Republican.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Perhaps the most important thing Washington will do this year is decide whether to approve President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court. But Republicans have already announced their decision: “No way!”

It’s rich for Republicans to declare pre-emptively that they will not even hold hearings on an Obama nominee, considering that they used to denounce (while their party held the White House) the notion that judges’ nominations shouldn’t proceed in an election year.

“That’s just plain bunk,” Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican,said in 2008. “The reality is that the Senate has never stopped confirming judicial nominees during the last few months of a president’s term.” His sense of reality has since changed.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said in 2008, “Just because it’s a presidential election year is no excuse for us to take a vacation.”

In fairness, Democrats have also been hypocritical. In 1992, when George Bush was president, then-Senator Joe Biden said an election-year vacancy should wait to be filled the next year.

A pox on all their houses!

Let’s tune out politicians’ rhetoric in both parties and look at the merits of the arguments. Supreme Court justices rarely die in office, and in recent decades they have mostly chosen to step down before election years. But despite what Republican senators would have you believe, there have been a number of Supreme Court vacancies filled in election years.

In the 20th century we had six:

■ In 1912, the Senate confirmed Mahlon Pitney, nominated by William Howard Taft.

■ In 1916, the Senate confirmed both Louis Brandeis and John Clarke, nominated by Woodrow Wilson.

■ In 1932, the Senate confirmed Benjamin Cardozo, nominated by Herbert Hoover.

■ In 1940, the Senate confirmed Frank Murphy, nominated by Franklin Roosevelt.

■ In 1988, the Senate confirmed Anthony Kennedy, who had been nominated by Ronald Reagan the previous November.

A counterexample is Abe Fortas, whose nomination to be elevated from associate justice to chief justice in the summer of 1968 was killed by a filibuster by Republicans and Southern Democrats. But that’s a horrifying bit of history for Republicans to rely upon, because the main reasons for opposition to Fortas were that he favored civil rights and was Jewish. His ethical lapses mostly emerged later.

Republicans suggest that it’s standard for a Supreme Court vacancy to be held over when it occurs during an election year. Since 1900, I can find only one example of something close to that happening: In the fall of 1956, after Congress had adjourned and Senate confirmation was impossible, William Brennan received a recess appointment, then in 1957 was nominated and confirmed.

It’s ironic that this tumult should bedevil a replacement for Antonin Scalia, who emphasized the constitutional text. The Constitution gives no hint that the Senate’s “advice and consent” for nominations should operate only in three out of four years.

If Republicans block Obama’s nomination, Scalia’s vacancy will last more than a year, compared with a historical average of resolving nominations in 25 days. To date, the longest Supreme Court nomination in American history lasted 125 days, and it looks as if we will easily break that record this year.

The larger issue here is obstructionism. When I was growing up, the G.O.P. was the serious, prudent, boring party, while the Democrats included a menagerie of populists, rascals and firebrands. Today it’s the G.O.P. that embraces the George Wallace demagogues, and its aim is less to govern than to cause gridlock. That’s not true of everyone — the House speaker, Paul Ryan, seems to have genuine aspirations to legislate. But to be a Republican lawmaker today is too often to seek to block appointments, obstruct programs and shut down government. Politics becomes less about building things up than about burning them down.

Both parties are open to expanding the earned-income tax credit, to early childhood programs, to better approaches to heroin addiction, to supporting women with obstetric fistula, to reducing violence against women worldwide. Yet practical measures to address these issues stall in Congress. The party of Lincoln is now the party of “No,” refusing even to invite the president’s budget director to testify on an Obama budget, as is customary. Congress is expected to accomplish next to nothing this year.

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are the apotheosis of this disregard for governing. Cruz’s entire congressional career has involved antagonizing colleagues and ensuring that nothing gets done. And Trump barely bothers with policies, just provocations.

All this is ineffably sad. I expect politicians to exaggerate and bluster. But I also expect them to govern, and that is what many in the Grand Old Party now refuse to do.

In that case, should they really be paid? Just as we have work requirements for some welfare recipients, maybe it’s time to consider work requirements for senators.

Now we have Ms. Collins:

Sometimes in a particularly awful presidential race you’re forced to take the most bleak and cynical view of the candidates running for the most powerful job in the world. And then you discover you’re overestimating.

Today we will consider the upside of Donald Trump.

O.K., it was never huge. Possibly not even nugget-size. But people, wasn’t there a moment when you thought that he could think outside the normal conservative box? True, his riff against the power of big political donors was just another way to brag about being rich. And he was awful on … so very many things.

But once in a while, as Trump ranted about the Republican insiders, some actual outsider remarks did pop up. Don’t mess with Social Security. Planned Parenthood is a good thing. And everybody ought to have health care.

Earlier in the campaign, he seemed to support a single-payer health care plan, sort of like Bernie Sanders. Wow.

“I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody is going to be taken care of,” he told Scott Pelley on CBS.

Now it was pretty clear Trump had not actually thought things through. This happens so very frequently, you have to wonder what he talks about on all those plane rides. Schedules? Golf scores? Dinner plans?

This month, Trump still seemed to be moving in the same general health care direction. In a CNN town hall, Anderson Cooper mentioned the Obamacare mandate that everybody must have insurance. The Republicans hate this idea. They believe all Americans have a God-given right to refuse to get health coverage and throw themselves on the mercies of extremely expensive hospital emergency rooms if they get ill.

“Well, I like the mandate,” said Trump. “O.K., so here’s where I’m a little bit different. I don’t want people dying on the streets and I say this all the time.”

This is how far we have fallen. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination keeps bragging that he does not want people dying in the streets.

“Now some people would say, ‘That’s not a very Republican thing to say,’” he told Cooper.

Wow, Trump clearly has a very low opinion of Republicans. As well as insurance companies. Do you see why a desperate citizen might think he’s the lesser of three front-running evils? Remember, right now the party’s sensible establishment candidate is a person who does not want to allow abortions for rape victims and who basically believes that the only people who should have to pay taxes are the ones who worked for the money.

Trump said the poor people could be taken care of “through maybe concepts of Medicare. … That’s called heart.”

Fast forward three days. Trump is back at CNN talking with Jake Tapper, denying that he wants any mandate.

Pop quiz. After Donald Trump said he did not want a health care mandate after all, he added that he also did not want:

A) Any more hard questions.

B) People dying in the streets.

You’re right! The answer is B, and in case anyone missed his big-heartedness, Trump added that people would not be “dying on the sidewalks” either.

One of the most universally popular parts of Obamacare is the requirement that insurance companies can’t discriminate against people who have pre-existing conditions like diabetes or a prior bout with cancer. The problem is how to keep everybody from waiting until they get sick to insure themselves. You can just create a kind of Medicare for all. Or you can require people to buy insurance, and help the low-income pay the cost.

“I don’t like the term mandate, personally, because that sort of means mandatory,” Trump explained.

So what the heck does he want? Well, I checked with his campaign. He wants people to be able to establish health savings accounts. He is also looking into the possibility of letting the states run Medicaid with federal block grants, and making health insurance premiums tax-deductible.

People will not die in the streets because there are, you know, emergency rooms.

We will skip over the part where Trump is this far down the road and still working on a basic plan. The more important point is that he’s coming down to a health care policy that is the same as Marco Rubio’s and Ted Cruz’s.

“If most Republicans didn’t agree on most of the features of reform then you’d have a story. The fact that they agree should not be a surprise to anyone,” said Sam Clovis, the campaign’s senior policy adviser, in a phone interview.

The bottom line is that once you really pin him down, Donald Trump is a mail-order conservative Republican, except more trash-talking about Muslims and Mexicans. Surrender hope and be careful not to die in the streets.

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