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Debate: What Ails Republicans?

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Francis Wilkinson is a former Democratic consultant who's now a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Ramesh Ponnuru is a veteran conservative writer and policy expert and a Bloomberg View columnist. They exchanged e-mails about the Republican Party's internal conflicts after the surprise resignation of Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Francis: Given my jaundiced view of the Republican majority, I've interpreted the demise of Boehner as further confirmation that the Republican Party is in crisis.  A Republican speaker operating with a large majority who nonetheless feels compelled to resign -- midterm -- because he cannot manage the contentious Republican conference. And of course it follows previous voluntary dramas on the debt ceiling and Obamacare.

In his Sunday interview with John Dickerson on CBS, Boehner agreed that the few dozen Ultras (I hate calling them "conservatives") in the House are absolutely "unrealistic" about what they can achieve in Washington with power divided between the parties. Yet the House -- Boehner's House -- is repeatedly held hostage to the Ultras' demands, and  more than a few mainstream conservatives live in fear of a primary challenge from the right.

This dynamic has been playing out since at least 2011, and it didn't really budge after Obama was re-elected in 2012. You can see something similar working on the party's presidential candidates, especially with regard to immigration -- with everyone shifting right to avoid trouble (for now).

Is this a healthy party?

Ramesh: Republicans are healthy enough that they could in 16 months have control of the White House, both houses of Congress, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. But you are right, of course, that there is a lot of dysfunction within the party. I would not put all the blame for it on the most conservative Republicans in Congress. The party’s congressional leaders promised great things if they took charge of the Senate. Once in control they acted as though they had no higher priority than passing a highway bill -- which they then failed to do. Of course a lot of Republicans grew restive.

A lot of Republicans are unhappy that their party has done nothing about President Obama’s executive lawmaking. Republicans’ discontent often takes the form of feuds with one another or threats of pointless showdowns with Obama. But the cause of that discontent is a dysfunction in our current system of government, not just in the GOP.

Congress has been growing weaker and weaker institutionally for a long time now. This is not just a matter of gridlock: Even in Obama’s first two years in power, when his party had large majorities in both chambers, a lot of the legislation he signed consisted mostly of grants of power to the executive branch. The trend toward executive government has accelerated as Obama has tested the limits of his powers. Congress has done very little to fight back, and Republican leaders have made it pretty clear that they are resigned.

The malcontents are right to want Congress to recover its authority. They’re right, as well, to rebel against an agenda of “regular order” that won’t change anything.

Francis: You know conservative politics much better than I do, but I'm not seeing a lot of grassroots outrage that Congress is insufficiently congressional. I see people upset that Republicans aren't riding roughshod over the executive because the executive is a liberal Democrat. In any case, Congress was certainly intensely engaged in a lot of the 2009-2010 legislation -- no more so than on Obamacare, which, of course, quickly proceeded to become the chief source of outrage on the right. So if the GOP base is worried about the erosion of congressional prerogatives and the expansion of executive power, I have a sneaking suspicion they will lose that passion under a Republican president.

I agree that Republican leaders oversold and under-delivered to their base. I don't see Boehner and McConnell as victims -- more as accessories. And the trouble began before 2010. Both GOP leaders played footsie with birthers and other cranks -- using "I take the president at his word" and other rhetoric that pandered to notions that the Obama presidency was illegitimate. Who benefited? It fed a -- dare I say it? -- a paranoid style that's only grown in evidence. 

On a larger stage, though, the party seems backward facing -- the efforts of people like yourself notwithstanding. It's OK to say, "Look, inequality is not our thing, policy-wise. It's just the way free markets work." But then more high-end tax cuts? Because they worked in the 1980s? And given the market-based approaches to climate change that a conservative party could champion, I don't see how it's acceptable to have one of the party's brightest up-and-comers (and maybe soon!), Marco Rubio, saying, in essence, "Hey, we're not doing anything about it."

Republicans may indeed control Congress and the White House very soon. Yet I don't have a clear understanding of what that would mean. Would they really adopt the Ryan budget? Or was that just tough talk when everyone knew it wouldn't happen? (And before Paul Ryan discovered the poor?) I don't know which policies are coming to market at full value and which are trading at a discount. Maybe I'm not skilled enough at reading the news. But I also think it results from a party that isn't sure if it's conservative or radical.

Ramesh: It’s true, Frank, that most conservatives have no deep attachment to congressional prerogatives. My point is rather that conservative anger at Republicans is connected to the long decline of Congress: When Republicans control Congress and Congress gets sand kicked in its face, it’s Republicans who look weak to their allies. You’re right as well that congressional Republicans could revert to follow-the-leader mode if a Republican wins the White House. But I think that the feistiness of congressional conservatives in recent years suggests that there could be a real check.

What else would that Republican president do with a generally but not automatically supportive Congress? I think we can safely predict that taxes would be cut and Obamacare significantly modified, maybe even replaced. Defense spending would be raised. International efforts to curb carbon emissions would be set back. (A good thing, in my view, since curbing emissions is not likely to generate benefits worth the costs.) Conservative justices would be appointed to the Supreme Court. Whether Republicans would try to rein in entitlements is harder to say, but several of their potential nominees seem committed to the idea.

None of that seems especially radical to me, but I think there is something to your criticism of Republican policies as “backward-looking.” Again, though, I think that both parties have stale agendas. The rhetoric of nearly every Democrat on labor issues is suffused with nostalgia for Walter Reuther’s America. Democrats’ proposals on guns seem like exercises in symbolism more than attempts to make an actual difference to the problems they identify. Their opposition to the Keystone Pipeline has that same totemic quality.

I suspect that one reason politics puts Americans in such a dyspeptic mood these days is that they sense that both parties are less interested in addressing current concerns than in priorities that they set a very long time ago.

Francis: I didn't have that view of Democrats in 2009 -- though I guess a global meltdown changes the stakes as well as perceptions of them. But I partly agree with you about the general drift of the Democratic campaign/debate thus far. I think Elizabeth Warren, and then Bernie Sanders, established a vocabulary that Hillary Clinton is less adept at speaking. And if you allow inequality to be your target, you're going to have a very difficult time hitting that mark, especially with policies you want to carry you through a general election. (Although I will also say that when Walter Reuther was around, the money was good.)

What you say on a Republican agenda makes sense, of course. As our View colleague Jon Bernstein likes to point out, politicians actually tend to do what they promise. But radicalism is in the eye of the beholder. I don't think nationalizing Mitt Romney's health care plan was radical, especially given a far less than optimal status quo. But a lot of people concluded it was. And I have no doubt that a different group of Americans will conclude the same about any Republican president's agenda.

Maybe, as you say, the congressional forces would assert themselves even to confront a Republican executive, which I suspect would have some perhaps unintended but still positive effects on relations in Congress. But with high levels of conflict between the parties, and a pretty robust conflict under way within at least one party, it's an unsettling moment. And it doesn't look to end soon does it?

Ramesh: I'd say there is conflict underway in both parties. It has been more muted among the Democrats because they have the White House and because Hillary Clinton for a long time seemed like she might not be effectively challenged.

During that period, it often seemed odd to me that she was being more responsive to her party's left than some of the Republican presidential contenders, in a highly competitive field, were being to their party's right. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio refused to join Donald Trump in calling for an end to birthright citizenship; Clinton, on the other hand, has walked away from previous positions on crime and trade.

Recent polls, though, have begun to suggest that she had good reasons for her caution. Democratic politics could be about to get interesting too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net