During the confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, prominent Trump critic Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., attacked Congress for relinquishing its constitutionally defined role as a lawmaking body and criticized members of Congress for prioritizing fiery public statements over legislating. On Sept. 9, Sasse said in an interview that neither major party has a long-term vision for the country.
The senator from Nebraska is correct about the Republican Party. On the midterm campaign trail, Republicans like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas have followed President Trump’s lead and focused on culture wars, not on a governing agenda. The reason: Trump’s presidential nomination revealed that most Republican voters don’t care about the limited government policies that Cruz, Walker, and other Republicans used to campaign on.
During the Obama presidency, conservative intellectual circles from legislators to think-tank analysts to newspaper columnists were abuzz with policy ideas for the GOP to consider once they took control of the government. For instance, in 2011, then-Chair of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan of Wisconsin put forward an ambitious budget proposal that would have reduced government spending by $5.8 trillion dollars over the next decade. One of the most innovative reforms in Ryan’s budget, premium support for Medicare, would have granted Medicare recipients subsidies to shop for a private insurance plan, reducing costs and government spending.
Other great ideas preceded this. In 2008, conservative writers were taking the political world by storm. Authors Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam released Grand New Party, an innovative book that helped build the foundation of reform conservatism. This loose ideology focused on moving conservatives away from supply-side economics (tax cuts, particularly for businesses, and deregulation) and toward more tax credit programs for the middle class. Then-Manhattan Institute fellow Avik Roy released a paper called “Transcending Obamacare,” in which he developed a model for a universal healthcare system based on those of Singapore and Switzerland, countries that spend far less on healthcare than the U.S.
Social Security reform was also a popular topic: Some in conservative circles, such as Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, said the program should be put on a better financial footing by raising the retirement age and lowering the cost-of-living adjustments used to calculate benefits. Others, such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs, advocated partial privatization of the program and increased incentives for private savings.
Before 2016, there was a plethora of new conservative ideas for GOP lawmakers to peruse while forming a comprehensive vision for the future. But the voters didn’t care for any of them.
Famously, Trump distinguished himself in the crowded GOP primary field as the only contender to oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He attacked Republican leaders for supporting entitlement reform, which certainly propelled him to victory in the presidential primary. In 2014, over a year before Trump announced his presidential campaign, Pew found that 59 percent of voters who self-identified as “consistently conservative” opposed all forms of Social Security cuts. While the other primary candidates focused on policy papers from conservative wonks, Trump followed the view of the GOP base, even if that meant ignoring serious long-term spending problems.
The party base’s disinterest in traditional conservative policy and innovative thinking has continued into the Trump presidency. When the Republican Congress attempted to repeal and replace Obamacare in 2017, voters revolted: a mere 28 percent of the electorate supported the GOP’s repeal efforts. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the biggest piece of legislation the current Congress has managed to pass, is a fairly typical conservative tax plan. The act lowered the corporate tax rate to 21 percent, while also lowering personal income tax rates, expanding the child tax credit and curbing some tax deductions. However, it’s not popular, and in an internal Republican National Committee report, the RNC concluded that they had lost the messaging battle on the issue, since more than 60 percent of Americans think the tax cuts benefit large companies more than middle-class families.
While the tax cuts have generated a fairly tepid response, the president’s protectionist turn on trade has caught on with GOP voters. According to recent SurveyMonkey data, 80 percent of Republicans support steel and aluminum tariffs and 71 percent of Republicans are more likely to support a Republican in the midterm election thanks to the president’s trade actions. Meanwhile, the conservative policy elite is almost universally opposed to economic protectionism. Thanks to the base’s support for this new trade regime, however, Republican legislators have mostly refrained from criticizing it publicly.
Trump is often credited for changing Republican voters’ positions on a host of issues, particularly moving the electorate from seeing Russia as a foe to as a friend. However, he won the Republican nomination in the first place not by changing voters’ views, but by abandoning unpopular, wonk-backed Republican policy positions. The reality Trump exposed is that there is little political constituency for newfangled ideas such as market-driven healthcare, entitlement spending reductions, or even less corporate taxation. Conservative policy elites need to seriously re-evaluate if they can change their marketing strategy and successfully repackage these longstanding ideas to voters. Otherwise, it might be time to go back to the agenda drawing board if the GOP wants to be a political party that believes in anything more than bitmojis standing for the national anthem.
Alex Muresianu (@ahardtospell) is a Young Voices contributor studying economics at Tufts University.