Politics

The Post-Policy Republicans Seized Control Long Ago

It's easy to blame Trump for the disarray of the Republican legislative agenda. But it goes back to Oct. 5, 1990.

Grand Old Party.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

It's easy to blame Donald Trump for the disarray of the Republican legislative agenda. After all, he is an unusually inept president. But Trump is not the cause of the current Republican crisis, more like a side effect. Some leading members are starting to get the message. 

Some excellent reporting from the Atlantic's McKay Coppins tells us that Republican campaign operatives "are mystified -- and alarmed -- by the fact that not even Donald 'Drain the Swamp' Trump had enough populist cred to swing a primary race to his candidate in deep-red Alabama," where Christian conservative Roy Moore defeated mainstream conservative incumbent Luther Strange. Coppins quotes one Republican strategist who worries that:

no one can predict how the roiling anger in the conservative electorate will manifest itself during next year’s midterms—but it’s unlikely it will subside anytime soon. “We need to be honest about the fact that there are some powerful people inside the Republican Party who have no interest in governing,” he told me. “They’re focused like a laser on decapitating the party’s leadership, and have no interest in growing the party’s base into a lasting majority.” The resulting dysfunction, he said, will only further inflame voters’ frustrations.

All of this is correct, but it's also not new, and wasn't new when Tea Party activists were rallying against President Barack Obama and also against mainstream Republican leaders. Indeed, the nihilist message of unfocused resentment -- sent by a different set of Republican leaders -- dates back to at least Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, but has had a firm hold on the party since the George H.W. Bush administration, when then-backbencher Newt Gingrich and Republican-aligned media, most notably Rush Limbaugh, rose to prominence in the party with exactly that message. "Decapitating the party's leadership" goes back to October 5, 1990, when a revolt against the first President Bush and congressional Republican leaders led to the initial defeat of a budget deal and the subsequent elevation of Gingrich to House Republican Whip and then Speaker of the House. 

Gingrich, of course, was victim of a decapitation himself, as was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott a few years later and Speaker John Boehner more recently. 1   

The hallmark of all this dysfunction is a political party that is rarely interested in, and increasingly unable, to articulate and enact public policy -- a post-policy Republican Party. The results were easiest to see in health care, with Republicans way more excited about finding a slogan to run on (Repeal and Replace!) than in actually coming up with substantive proposals for what to do about U.S. health care. But it's visible almost across the board. 

Think, for example, about the question about the next chair of the Fed. Democrats have strong views on what the Fed should do. Some Republican specialists and Republican interest groups have strong views. But most Republican politicians are just not engaged enough to have opinions. And the president himself, as usual, is almost a random policy generator

Indeed, the last several Republican presidential nominees have been either noblesse oblige types who ran on the idea that they were just inherently suited for the job, no policy specifics required -- George H.W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney -- and those who sneered at expertise, George W. Bush and Donald Trump. 2  In a way, Trump was at least a bit more policy-oriented than Romney and McCain had been, except that his policy pronouncements (Build the Wall! Take the Oil!) were blithering nonsense, so that doesn't really count. 

Trump, for all his apparent ignorance, fits right in. He's such a pure example of a post-policy politician, the fantasy that congressional Republicans just needed someone to sign the bills they could easily write and pass is even more exposed as a myth than it would have been had Senator Marco Rubio or Governor Scott Walker won the White House. 

When Republican-aligned groups do have specific policy demands -- in areas like such as guns or abortion -- the party at large fails in a different way. A more capable party (say, Republicans in the 1980s) would work with the NRA and with Christian conservatives, finding ways to incorporate some of their preferences in the party agenda while rejecting the ones that are electorally or substantively harmful. That's hard work, however. It requires understanding the issues themselves and how they play out against other party policy preferences. It also requires real, painful negotiations, which force party-aligned groups themselves to choose among their preferences before moving forward together. It's easier -- at least at first -- to just accept anything those groups want. But the result can be a party with dramatically unpopular or even internally contradictory commitments. In other words, it makes governing a lot harder. 

And the problem does seem to be getting worse over time. As recently as 2013, Senate Republicans were able to conduct real negotiations over immigration policy -- only to find House Republicans utterly unable and uninterested in working out a counter-proposal that might move the final results in their direction, but still be better than the status quo. During the George W. Bush presidency, Republicans at least could formulate coherent tax-cutting legislation; now, it's not even clear they can do that

The problem with the Republican Party isn't that it's too conservative. The problem -- well, one of the big parts of the problem -- is that it has stopped taking governing seriously enough to produce conservative policy solutions for the problems which their own party identifies. Instead, it's successfully bullied by conservative entertainers and even some Republican politicians who (whether they act on it or not) have serious financial incentives to keep the party out of power, and to turn against it when it does win, all in the phony name of True Conservativism. That's a big part of what allowed Trump to win their nomination, and it's why serious conservative anti-Trumpers can't hope to fix things merely by replacing him or waiting him out. 

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

  1. Boehner, like House Minority Leader Bob Michael back in the 1990s, jumped before he was pushed; as far as I know there's still no clear evidence that Boehner was actually forced out, but he certainly was going to have a rough ride if he had remained. 

  2. Bush, at least, did run on several specific policy ideas. But he also re-enforced the idea that specific policy knowledge was, if anything, a disqualification for governing, an idea which was spectacularly proven wrong in Iraq. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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