woody zimmermann 120The GOP’s “accountability bill” has finally come due. Republican representatives and senators have dodged it for years, but it’s far in arrears and must be paid. As with most overdue bills, the demand for payment comes at an inopportune time. But voters want payment NOW. The pitchfork-brigade is preparing to march.

The “bill” I refer to relates to the GOP leadership’s long-standing promise, made repeatedly throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, to “change” the way things are done in Washington. Just give us the Congress, was the stock Republican plea. We’ll use the Power of the Purse to stop Mr. Obama’s drive to ruin America. (As Winston Churchill famously put it: “Give us the tools and we shall do the job.”)

The voters have admirably done their part – producing GOP landslides in 2010 and 2014 that gave Republicans control of first the House and finally the Senate, too. Expectations ran high after the 2014 election brought in eight new Republican senators – sweeping Harry Reid (D-NV) out and putting Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in as majority leader. GOP voters were ready to rock and roll. Happy days, it seemed, were here again!

The result of all this rockin’ and rollin’, however, has been more of a pop than a bang. All the posturing and campaign-promises about “fixing Washington” have produced little real change. Instead, Republicans have passed bigger federal spending bills than ever, with scant effort made to rein in contentious areas like spending on illegal immigrants and funding for Planned Parenthood. Military budgets continue to shrink. Food-stamp recipients number nearly 20% of the nation’s population – exceeding 46 million people for thirty-eight straight months. The fraction of Americans not working has reached a historic high of 63%. The national economy is growing at an anemic 2% (or less) a year. And Obamacare – the Frankenstein that so many Republican candidates have fervently vowed to dismantle – continues to monster-mash merrily across the land, driving the costs of health-care insurance for the middle class to back-breaking levels, while utterly failing to fulfill its promise to insure the millions who lack proper health-care.

Meanwhile, a freshly invigorated President Obama – in full-throated denial that the 2014 elections changed anything – touts his “roaring” economy and GOP “obstructionism” for any problems. He announces plans to bring in thousands more Syrian “refugees,” and he acts unilaterally on “common-sense” gun control. Far from reining in a runaway president, the Republican Congress seems to be in a state of profound shock. There’s some hand-wringing and incoherent babbling, but very little action except to plead that we “need the presidency” before we can really get anything done. (Haven’t we heard this song before?)

The GOP’s much-trumpeted vows to “change things” in Washington brought to mind Hal Holbrook’s live show, “Mark Twain tonight,” in which the actor wonderfully impersonates the famous 19th-century author and personality on the lecture-stage. In one notable skit he describes the self-important skipper of a small coastal fishing boat who liked to hail passing ships via his hand-held megaphone. On one occasion he hailed a clipper-ship proceeding majestically under full sail:

Ahoy there!” he demanded. “What ship is that, and where bound?”

The answer came in a resonant bass voice that could be heard for miles:

“THE STAR OF INDIA, ON COURSE FOR NEW YORK – 240 DAYS OUT FROM THE BAY OF BENGAL – LADEN WITH SPICES, GEMS, IVORY AND RARE SILKS! WHAT SHIP IS THAT, AND WHERE BOUND?”

After a pause came the squeaky reply: “Oh, just the Mary Ann, goin’ nowhere in particular…”

This is how long-suffering conservative Republican voters view the party they have supported through thick and thin – mostly thin. They gave their party control of Congress, but a lack of strong leadership has left a vacuum that wants filling. Into that vacuum has rushed billionaire businessman and entrepreneur Donald Trump, followed by a gaggle of Republicans of varying political stripes. Each one thinks he can fill the leadership-vacuum as president, and each has a following. But more GOP voters have gravitated toward Mr. Trump because he looks bold enough to actually get something done. Unlike most candidates, he takes on difficult issues like illegal immigration and Muslim terrorism that many conservatives want addressed. Some critics say he’s all mouth, but his business-record suggests otherwise.

It’s unclear if Mr. Trump is really a conservative, as he seems to have come to some of his political positions only recently. And his attempts to appeal to evangelical Christians have produced some burlesque moments, like his speech at Liberty University when he referred to the Biblical book of “Two Corinthians.” He pops off too much without thinking (in my opinion), and he doesn’t act very “presidential.” At some level these might be disadvantages, but they are mostly matters of “form” that many Republican voters seem inclined to overlook because they are sick of losing presidential elections with gentlemanly candidates who act as punching bags and doormats for tough, single-minded Democrats who do whatever it takes to win. Dems know that you can’t accomplish a thing if you lose.

Democrats also know how to use power when they have it. President Obama has run rings around his Republican “opposition” (using the term loosely) during his tenure. His executive orders – often clearly exceeding his Constitutional authority – have frequently been struck down by the Supreme Court. Even a school-child could expect this result, so Mr. Obama must have foreseen it. Yet he forges ahead, buoyed by his acolytes’ wild applause and fawning media-admiration for his “bold, decisive” actions. Later Supreme Court rulings undoing these orders are poorly reported – if at all – by media occupied with radical new presidential acts.

Obviously, Mr. Obama’s executive orders and other diktats are intended to show his constituent-base that he is fully engaged and fighting the good fight for them. Mr. Trump seems to grasp this tactic; other GOP candidates, not so much. Indeed, most Republicans seem strongly inclined – almost to the point of obsession – to show that they really are the nice guys on the field. “I can work across the aisle” is a familiar Republican campaign-mantra that is now almost obligatory for any Republican running for office. “Republicans: we’re not as bad as you think” (first mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, I believe) is the hoary joke about this GOP tendency.

Democrats, on the other hand, care nothing about working with the opposition party. They know they are in office to advance the Democratic agenda, and they seldom depart from that mission. When Majority Leader Harry Reid controlled the Senate, he ruled with a rod of iron, retaining strict control of his caucus. And he wasn’t above changing the Senate’s rules when it suited his purposes.

In 2013 Senator Reid detonated what media poobahs called the “nuclear option” by enacting a change in Senate rules that eliminated the 60-vote requirement to stop a filibuster of judicial nominees. (51 votes is the new threshold – applicable only to nominees below the Supreme Court level.) When Republicans held the Senate they sometimes threatened this, but fearing the wrath of the people, as well as probable denunciations by liberal media, they never did it. Senator Reid had no such fear. When Republicans blocked three of Obama's nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit via a filibuster, Mr. Reid declared: “The American people believe…the Senate is broken. And I believe they are right. The need for change is very obvious.” Try to imagine a Republican saying that, and you’ll see why Republicans are sneeringly called “the Timid Party” by both pols and pundits.

I believe that timidity stems from three primary factors. Fear is at the heart of two of these. The first is fear of failure. For whatever reason, Republicans seem to have a visceral fear of failing. The old maxim – “better to fight and lose than not to fight at all” – is not a part of their ethos. If they don’t think they can win on an issue, they leave the field to their opponents.

How did they get this way? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s an inferiority complex produced by languishing in the political wilderness as the minority party for 60 years. Or maybe they harbor a secret conviction that liberals are still in charge, no matter who has the Congress or the presidency.

The second fear – evident during the past seven years – is a fear of Obama. Above all else, Republicans fear being called “racists” for the unforgivable sin of opposing the country’s first non-white president. This could hardly be clearer. Democrats have astutely exploited it, of course, turning every political disagreement into a racial circus in which every race-hustling clown in the country – with Al Sharpton playing a lead role – puts on a show for enraptured reporters and pundits. (Remember: “where’s the conflict?” is always the media’s central question.)

Some social analysts say race-relations in the country have been set back 50 years by the Obama presidency. I don’t know if that’s true, but certainly I can’t think of a time since the aftermath of Dr. King’s death when things were this bad. Millions of decent voters who thought they had elected a racial “healer” are appalled. But instead of denouncing Democrats’ race-baiting, Republicans run from it like terrified rabbits fleeing from a forest-fire. Race has become the new “third rail” of American politics. (Touch it and you die.)

The third factor causing what looks like timidity in the Republican Party is actually a deep division among its politicians and voters. There is the “conservative” faction consisting of constitutionalists like Ted Cruz who want limited government, low taxes, and untrammeled freedom to worship, speak, work, earn, live and prosper. A growing “populist” faction is made up of unsophisticated ordinary Americans who are “mad as hell” and refuse to take any more of what the political class has been shoveling. And there are old-line “establishmentarians” who are OK with big government and the high taxes to support it; they just want to be in charge.

In addition, single-issue interest-groups cut across those three primary factions: e.g., gun-rights (2nd Amendment) activists; religious liberty and free-speech (1st Amendment) advocates; pro-life activists; pro-choice advocates; gay rights advocates; neo-feminists; etc. These factions and sub-factions don’t always see eye-to-eye on politics, so the result can be a “paralysis” that prevents any real progress. A clear GOP consensus, like Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America,” is lacking at this time. A new direction for the party will not emerge until a new leader – hopefully a new president – is chosen.

I am not the first to note that Donald Trump is a product of this Republican leadership-vacuum. Many party members recoil from Mr. Trump’s uncouth manners and controversial declarations. Others cheer his lusty attacks on illegal immigration and other issues that “polite” factions in the party won’t touch. This kind of primary-election competition is natural, but the obvious rancor between pro-Donald and anti-Donald groups – magnified by wild talk of an establishment gang choosing the nominee in a “brokered” convention – is beginning to arouse fear of a schism that causes one group or the other to sit out the general election, thus giving Hillary Clinton the prize. I admit that Mr. Trump wouldn’t be my first choice, but he would have to be better than another President Clinton.

Wise GOP leaders need to do everything possible to unify the party, once voters choose their nominee. If no candidate comes to the convention with the delegates needed to secure the nomination, delegates and leaders must take the greatest possible care to choose a nominee who can bring all GOP voters together and assure them that he will settle the accountability bill in full.

It hardly needs to be said that every candidate for the Republican nomination must urge his followers to support the party’s standard-bearer, no matter who he is. There can be no waffling on this deadly serious point. The future of the country may depend on it.