The Vanishing Republican Agenda

Two years of GOP rule will yield a tax cut and not much else.

U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) answers questions at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 22, 2018 in Washington, DC. Ryan answered a range of questions related to the ominbus spending bill the House of Representatives is currently considering.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Congress will be in recess for the next week or so, and we’ve been given a few peeks recently about what Republicans will set about doing once they get back. According to Politico, one of the items on the agenda may be tax cuts. Yes. Really.

Republicans are dreaming of passing another round of tax cuts this year—or at least making vulnerable Democrats squirm by voting against them.

GOP leaders are weighing a series of votes to make last year’s temporary tax cuts for individuals permanent, according to Republicans in both chambers. The strategy would portray the party as the guardian of Americans’ paychecks, Republicans say, and buoy the GOP during a brutal election year.

They may also pretend to go after a balanced-budget amendment. According to the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein, this was a promise made by Paul Ryan to House fiscal conservatives as a condition of their support for December’s deficit-exploding tax bill. It is also a move likely aimed in part at placating whatever Republican constituents sincerely and deeply troubled by America’s fiscal situation might still be out there. Passage and enactment would require the support of Democrats in the Senate and three-fourths of America’s state legislatures; Republicans will get neither.

In sum, much of what the party does legislatively this year will be pure theater. Whether or not Democrats take the House in November, there is no chance whatsoever that the GOP will have more votes to pass major legislation afterward than they do now. It may well be some time before the right will have another real shot at, for instance, slashing entitlements. That project has been the boyhood dream of House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was rumored to be on the cusp of retirement last week. Those rumors were quickly shot down, but it wasn’t the first time the subject has come up. A Politico profile in December reported that Ryan had “his eyes on the exits.” The plan, according to Politico’s Tim Alberta and Rachel Bade, would be for Ryan to retire after the midterm elections, giving the speaker “a final legislative year to chase his second white whale, entitlement reform, while using his unrivaled fundraising prowess to help protect the House majority—all with the benefit of averting an ugly internecine power struggle during election season.

But it’s precisely elections that make it unlikely Republicans will throw themselves into a push for cuts sure to be deeply unpopular before November. Ryan and the party are in a real strategic bind. And yet establishment conservatives are generally sunny about what Republicans have been able to do.

Earlier this year, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, released a report praising the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress for implementing 64 percent of the recommendations advanced in their “Mandate for Leadership” platform—a significant increase from the 49 percent of Heritage recommendations that Ronald Reagan had completed at the same point in his presidency. That list of 334 recommendations includes a few big-ticket items that the administration’s gotten done, like a tax bill as well as a dizzying array of executive actions. The foundation does, though, seem to be grading on a bit of a curve. Its checklist, for instance, credits the Trump administration for “adopting” their recommendation to repeal and replace Obamacare, which has, obviously, not been repealed nor replaced. The tax bill did kill the individual mandate, but the Republican effort to pass a comprehensive health care bill failed spectacularly and it’s not at all clear that Congress will take another swing at ditching the rest of the ACA anytime soon.

As Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute pointed out on Tuesday, Republicans seem strangely uninterested in strategically evaluating what happened on that front or how the party has spent its political capital, broadly speaking:

Is anyone on the Right really trying to figure out what went wrong in a public venue? When the public option failed in 2010 left media covered the ins-and-outs of it in great detail. Joe Lieberman is not in good standing with liberals for his refusal to support a Medicare buy-in at 55, which is what he previously endorsed. Do conservatives blame John McCain for killing the “skinny repeal” in a last-minute thumbs down vote just as much? Did they even like skinny repeal?

What we see instead are establishment conservatives like National Review editor Rich Lowry encouraging Republicans to stay rosy about what Trump and Republicans in Congress have accomplished. “For much of the year, Trump’s presidency had seemed to be sound and fury signifying not much besides the welcome ascension of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court,” he wrote in December. “Now, it is sound and fury signifying a discernible shift of American government to the right.”

This is both inarguably true and a fairly low bar for a Republican president to clear. This sunniness, moreover, combined with the GOP’s potential return in a matter of weeks to tax cuts and deficit trolling suggests that the Republican Party does not, actually, have very many ideas about how to solve the problems facing this country. Taken seriously, the notion that we’ve just witnessed, in the past year, conservatives accomplishing over 60 percent of what they wanted to do with this administration is indicative of a profound disconnect. It is doubtful that the average American would say that 60 percent of what ought to be fixed in this country has just been repaired.

The average Republican voter might, though, and perhaps that’s all that matters on the right. Polling last year showed that Republican opinion on the economic situation improved dramatically soon after the election and well before the passage of any legislation that might have significantly impacted it. Clearly, the party’s faithful are guided less by policy success than by other more ineffable forces—the opportunity, for instance, that sending Republicans to Washington offers them for the expression of certain cultural grievances. On that front, obviously, Republican governance has already been a phenomenal success.