If someone who paid little attention to American politics were to quickly survey congressional activity and presidential rhetoric since January, he might be excused for thinking that the Democratic party is firmly ensconced in both Congress and the White House. Very little has been accomplished so far this year, and that, along with the poor quality of the few supposed “successes,” can be ascribed to the dysfunctionality of the ruling Republican party and the inability of its leadership to achieve results amid general chaos.
This week alone, congressional leaders reached a “compromise” on a $1 trillion budget deal that consisted primarily of concessions made by the GOP majority and points scored for Democrats. These include the continued funding of Planned Parenthood and so-called “sanctuary cities,” nearly $300 million for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program, and language preventing the funding of any border-wall construction. The $1.5 billion apportioned for border security does not permit any funding of a deportation force.
The closest thing to a Republican victory in the proposed budget is the $15 billion to fight terrorism, but that isn’t a partisan issue at all; most Democrats are on board with fighting ISIS and its allies in one form or another. Surely the allotment of such funding required little give and take, especially since the bill stipulates that a portion of the funding will be available only if the White House offers a concrete plan to take down ISIS.
On the issue of health care, too, the GOP has seen more defeat than victory. Trump promised to flex his famed deal-making muscles and replace the Affordable Care Act on Day One, but when it came time to do business, he lacked the ability to push the American Health Care Act (AHCA) through the House.
Some of the holdup must be attributed to the man at the helm, who last May said, ‘This is called the Republican party, it’s not called the Conservative party.’
One is left wondering what good it does for Republicans to hold the White House and both chambers of Congress if they still can’t manage to achieve any conservative victories. Arguably the party’s biggest wins so far have been not new policies but rather rollbacks, through the Congressional Review Act, of Obama-era executive overreach.
Some of the holdup must be attributed to the man at the helm, who last May said, “This is called the Republican party, it’s not called the Conservative party.” Trump, who has been a Republican politician for less than two years now, has changed or openly considered changing his stance on nearly every policy issue — reversals often due to his propensity for opining on policy before he knows anything about it — and reports from Capitol Hill suggest that working with him hinders progress more than anything. Having such a man as the leader of the GOP is a huge hurdle for getting anything done in an efficient, authentically conservative way.
The problem also stems from politicians’ aversion to telling the public that it can’t have everything it wants at no cost to it. Other than the members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus — who refused to vote for the AHCA without substantial cuts to the structure of Obamacare and have since dedicated themselves to working out a compromise — few Republicans seem inclined to enact real conservative policies. Most seem to fear being painted as the bad guys.
Moderate Republicans in both the House and the Senate have insisted for months that they won’t support any revision of Obamacare that results in any of their constituents’ losing coverage, an essentially impossible goal if the legislation also aims to decrease premiums and give states freedom. The vast majority of Republican legislators insist that the health-care replacement will still require that insurers cover pre-existing conditions, a provision that will always necessitate an Obamacare-like structure. And some GOP leaders must have caved on nearly every issue during budget negotiations in order to produce a bill so overwhelmingly favorable to Democrats.
If House Republicans manage to pass a revised version of the AHCA later this week, it’ll be an important step. But the underlying problem remains: Too many in the GOP have exchanged conservativism for feel-good rhetoric, and our president isn’t poised to stop them.
— Alexandra DeSanctis is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.