What Republicans Aren’t Telling Us in the Midterms
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- According to Nancy Pelosi, Republicans in Washington “are setting in motion their plan to destroy the Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that seniors and families rely on.” She’s distorting comments by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who actually said that while he would like to see reforms to those programs, they will not happen with Congress and the White House both controlled by Republicans. Republicans aren’t planning to cut Medicare and Social Security.
The truth is worse: They’re not planning to do much of anything at all.
Republicans in Washington have no agenda beyond confirming President Trump’s judicial nominees, and have not had one for all of this year. In 2017, they tried to make big changes to Obamacare and the tax code. They failed on one and succeeded on the other, and then they just gave up.
At the end of 2017, House Speaker Paul Ryan was pushing Republicans to take up welfare reform. The Trump administration talked up an infrastructure bill. The party compromised by not making a concerted effort on either.
In part, Republican inaction was a consequence of their tenuous hold on the Senate. When Democrat Doug Jones won a special election in Alabama, it knocked the Republican majority down to 51. John McCain’s illness made it an effective 50 for much of the year.
But Republicans are asking for voters to augment that majority now, and they still have no agenda. Take a look at Republican Senate candidates’ websites. You will find many who pledge to vote against gun regulations. You won’t find much by way of explanation of what legislation they would try to enact if they win their races. They have returned to vague calls to repeal and replace Obamacare. They’re not touting any infrastructure plans.
Even on immigration, the Republican candidates don’t have more than a sentence or two to say. Many of them attack “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. But it’s not at all clear the federal government can do anything about those local governments. Only a few of the candidates have been willing to endorse the more serious policy of requiring employers to check the legal status of new hires.
Candidates don’t always run for office with detailed platforms, of course. The Contract With America, a 1994 campaign manifesto from Republicans, was exceptional in committing almost all Republican congressional candidates to advancing specific pieces of legislation. (And even that commitment was limited: The promise was only to hold votes on them in the first days of the new Congress.)
There are multiple reasons for the empty Republican cupboard. Both the health-care bill and the tax bill have convinced Republican politicians that legislating only gives the Democrats a target. They figure that the noise coming from the Trump White House would drown out any policy agenda. Many Republican voters seem more excited by inchoate cultural grievances than by anything related to public policy.
Then, too, there are the peculiar circumstances that led to the Trump presidency. The president exposed the lack of a political foundation for the old Republican agenda by beating a slew of Republicans who were better associated with it. But he did not replace that agenda with one of his own.
Not many Republican politicians have felt any need to come up with a creative synthesis of the party’s pre-Trump principles and its Trumpian impulses. The result has been a party that is unsure of what it stands for even as it wields more formal power than it has in decades.
Republicans might be able to expand their ranks in the Senate without campaigning to do anything in particular. Perhaps they will even hold a slimmed-down majority in the House. But they will find, as they found in early 2017, that it is difficult to get the party working together on an agenda without having built a consensus before the election.
I am tempted to say that there is something, if not anti-democratic, at least contrary to the spirit of good government, in a political party so thoroughly abandoning the notion that it will tell us in advance what it will do if it wins an election. If it did that, voters would be able to judge its program in casting their ballots this time, and next time they would be able to look back and see how much of that program was achieved and with what results.
In the Republicans’ limited defense, however, they are probably giving us an accurate picture of what they would accomplish legislatively if given the chance in 2019-20. If they win and do nothing, nobody will be able to call them on broken promises.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
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