February 2, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The cost to the GOP of ‘saying the quiet part out loud’ is clearer

Biden is taking advantage of the GOP’s inaction on the border.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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You have probably noticed the expression “saying the quiet part out loud.” It’s applied exclusively to Republican congresspeople and elected officials who say something in public as if they were speaking in private. Specifically, it describes when a Republican forgets to use, or decides not to use, positive-sounding rhetoric to hide, or soften, their real intentions.

You have probably also noticed that the Republicans do this more often than they used to. Instead of “presenting a positive vision for the future,” as Ron DeSantis once put it, these Republicans increasingly follow the lead of their presumptive nominee. Instead of deploying an arsenal of coded language developed over decades, they “call it like it is,” no matter how racist, cynical and self-destructive it might be.

I’ll get to the political cost of doing this in a moment. For now, I want to say that this growing habit of “saying the quiet part out loud” is not only what the Republican base wants. It’s signifies loyalty to Donald Trump. After he said, in the run-up to the Iowa caucus, that migrants are “poisoning the blood” of the country, GOP voters said they were more likely to support him, not less. Republican leaders have noticed.

Some Republicans in the US Senate seem to understand what Speaker Mike Johnson’s DOA declaration really is – a confession that the Republicans don’t care about the problem, but only whether it yields more opportunities to acquire more power. Swing voters had taken the Republicans at their word. Now they might stop trusting them. 

Dan Patrick was on Fox recently. The lieutenant governor of Texas was invited to talk about immigration and “the crisis at the border.” In the past, GOP officials of his rank would avoid sounding like they were giving voice to “white genocide” conspiracy-mongering. They would couch it in “a positive vision,” such as maintaining the rule of law. 

But Patrick decided to say the quiet part out loud. He said the “border crisis” is “an invasion from Third-World countries.” He went to say that migrants are “coming here with health issues, they’re uneducated, unemployed, and all they do is commit crime on the streets.” It won’t be long before Dan Patrick, like his dear leader, starts calling them “vermin” and “scum” who must be “purged,” along with “Marxists.”

If Donald Trump is the outcome of the base of the Republican Party going to war against the Republican establishment – a pretty common understanding among members of the press and pundit corps – it was a war against the way Republican elites talk about practically everything. It was a war against “presenting a positive vision for the future.” If elites don’t sound like Trump – if they insist on using coded language in order to broaden the appeal of their policy objectives, like “border security” – they are increasingly seen as disloyal to Trump. They’re traitors.

This phenomenon almost certainly played a role in House Speaker Mike Johnson’s decision to kill, preemptively, a bipartisan immigration reform bill currently being negotiated in the US Senate. He said it was “dead on arrival.” He said that because, while a solution to “the border crisis” might be in the national interest, it’s not in Trump’s. Trump can’t continue accusing Joe Biden of allowing migrants to “poison the blood” of the country if his own party helps the president solve that “problem.”

It’s not like the GOP didn’t exploit problems, rather than try solving them, before Trump arrived, in order to grab power for the purpose of dominance and control. They accused Barack Obama, who deported more migrants than all presidents before him combined, of epic levels of lawlessness. (They said he defied federal law.) On that, and other things, the Republicans mounted a campaign of massive resistance.  

The difference now is an issue of language, and with that difference has come a greater awareness of the Republicans’ true intentions among people (swing voters) who might not react at all had they not said the quiet part out loud. In killing legislation on a “border crisis” that the Republicans themselves have said is a matter of national security, Johnson is admitting, though tacitly, that the problem is not serious enough to risk giving due credit to Biden, which is another tacit way of admitting that power is the point of all this, not problem-solving. 

He is saying the quiet part out loud. 

Some Republicans understand the cost.

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Before Johnson’s DOA declaration, US Senator Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota, had said that the Trump campaign should focus less on the former president’s legal troubles, and on his thirst for payback, and more on the border, as “illegal immigration” is a top concern of the swing voters that he will need to win. He told Roll Call that, “I think it’s the independent voters that it resonates the most with, absolutely.”

But now, afterward, he’s concerned. He seems to understand what Johnson’s DOA declaration is – a confession that the Republicans don’t care about the problem, but only whether it yields more opportunities to acquire more power. Swing voters had taken the Republicans at their word. Now, Cramer is worried that they might stop trusting them. 

He told CNN: “If we don’t try to do something when we have the moment to do something, all of those swing voters in swing states for whom the border is the number one priority have every right to look at us and go: ‘You blew your opportunity. We were ready to give you a shot, and you blew it.’ I don’t see that coming back as a reward to us.”

Cramer seems to understand the cost of saying the quiet part out loud, and that things would be better if Donald Trump stopped going to war with the way Republican elites talk. Perhaps Johnson agrees, but he has no choice. Trump has already called the bipartisan bill a “betrayal.” If Johnson were to allow that bill to move forward in the House, and chance passage by the Democrats and “moderate” Republicans, he’d risk putting himself and his conference on the other side of Trump.

Meanwhile, Biden and the Democrats are taking advantage of all this. The president has said that all the Republicans have to do is endow him with the authority to solve the problem and he will. “Give me the power, I asked them the very day I got into office,” he said. “Give me the Border Patrol, give me the people, give me the judges, give me the people who can stop [the crisis] and make [the border] work.” California Congressman Eric Swalwell put it this way: “When it comes to border security, Democrats are for the fix and Republicans are for the fiction.”

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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