The Republicans Are Running on a Fictional Platform

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Here’s a puzzle: Why are Republicans running on fictional versions of their own platform? And how big of a deal is it?

On health care, Republicans from Donald Trump down say they are protecting people with pre-existing conditions. In reality, as Jonathan Cohn explains, the administration is in court to wipe out protections for those people, and Trump supported both repeal of Obamacare and replacement bills that would do little or nothing about the problem.(My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Max Nisen has a good rundown of the necessary trade-offs that Republicans simply refuse to make.)

At the same time, Trump is pretending that he’s about to slash middle-class taxes. He’s not. Had Republicans wanted to do that, they could have included the measure in their previous tax cut. Or they could have passed it this year. Or Trump could at least have put forward a plan. Or at least the White House or Treasury would be working on a plan, perhaps in conjunction with the House Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committees. But the president is just saying stuff that sounds good to him, or perhaps stuff that gets positive responses at his rallies, without any sign there will be any real policy follow-up. 

And then there’s the situation with the migrant caravan moving through Mexico. Here, Republicans are simply hyping the situation. It’s an ISIS front! It’s a plot by Democrats! They’re going to vote in the midterms! All entirely fictional. Apparently, the regular rhetoric behind the real Republican anti-immigration policy isn’t sufficient.

Matt Yglesias argues that the key to why Republicans are doing this is the supportive role of party-aligned media. Since Fox News and Republican talk radio won’t call out Republican politicians on these things, they are free to say whatever works at the moment.

It is true that to some extent the partisan media on both sides are independent party actors. It’s also true that there are differences between Republican and Democratic party-aligned media. 

But the partisan press also functions as a transmission belt for other party actors, including politicians, activists, governing professionals and party-aligned interest groups. If Republican party actors were really upset about any of this, voters would hear about it. That’s what happened with President George W. Bush’s failed nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. 

What’s really astonishing about the Republican Party, in other words, is the extent to which practically none of its members appear to care about public policy on issue after issue. 

That’s not true about abortion: Christian conservatives care deeply, and act accordingly. The same seems to be true with tax cuts for wealthy people. But beyond that? Is there really any issue where important party actors are willing to fight hard?

Of course, there are some individual Republicans who care deeply about health care or foreign policy or trade or various other policy questions. And some Republican-aligned interest groups have been getting what they want in regulatory change. But if they didn’t, would they go shopping to see if Democrats would be more willing to help them? It doesn’t appear that way. For example, on trade, a lot of business interests theoretically oppose Trump-inspired Republican protectionism, but they aren’t remotely open to moving toward a Democratic Party that is more willing to support free trade. The same has been true on health care: Some organized groups that have been traditionally Republican are choosing the party over their self-interest when support for the Affordable Care Act helped them and repeal would have harmed them. 

So, party loyalty, not ideology or specific policy or even basic self-interest, drives most Republican party actors most of the time. It really is a post-policy party.

If you don’t care about policy then it’s not really much of a contradiction to support all the popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act while also trying to undermine Obamacare — even though they’re the exact same thing. 

Trump makes up stuff because, well, he’s a person who makes up stuff. But one important reason why Republicans tolerate him is because so many of them simply don’t care very much about what their elected officials do, at least beyond judicial selections and lower taxes for the rich, as long as they stick to partisanship. Yes, this tends to make actually governing quite difficult. But it sure does free the party’s politicians to say all sorts of nutty things on the campaign trail, and Republican-aligned media to support whatever that might be. 

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

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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