As Republicans prepare to take power in both the legislative and the executive branches of the federal government for the first time since 2005, they would be wise to look at the examples of Januaries past.
In 2009, Democrats began the 111th Congress with an overwhelming advantage in the House and a near-filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Barack Obama took the oath of office on January 20 having romped to a convincing win over John McCain. It might have seemed as though a new age of Democratic dominance had dawned. Within two years, though, Barack Obama’s ability to enact his legislative agenda had died. A backlash against the president’s policies gave Republicans the House and began a multi-cycle liquidation of the Democratic bench across the country. Rather than responding to the challenges of the present, Democrats focused on pushing through a left-wing wish list in 2009–10 and reaped the whirlwind. Republicans should learn from that example.
But they should also learn from the example of the GOP’s last experience with unified control of the federal government. When George W. Bush delivered his second inaugural address, Republicans had control of the federal government to a degree they had not seen since Eisenhower’s first term. Despite that seemingly auspicious beginning, Republicans would lose Congress in 2006 and suffer electoral Armageddon in 2008. A battle over Social Security privatization combined with a public restive over Iraq policy helped pull down Bush’s approval numbers — and the fallout from Hurricane Katrina further weighed on the president’s approval rating. Meanwhile, a variety of scandals caused the public to lose faith in a Congress run by the GOP. The financial crisis of 2008 shredded an already tattered Republican party.
Certain commonalities arise from these two examples. First, implementing a policy vision (such as the Affordable Care Act) without public buy-in is a parlous political enterprise. Second, voters demand competence and some plausible pretense of virtue in their government — and will reward the opposition party if the majority party falls short. Third, voters judge politicians on their results. If Iraq had not unraveled in the period of 2005–06 and if American casualties had not remained so high, Republicans might not have faced such a retribution in 2006; absent the financial crisis (which occurred on the watch of a Republican president), many GOP House members and senators might have been saved in 2008. If Barack Obama had restored vigorous, widely shared economic growth and not waged the left-wing culture war, Democrats would likely have a better standing in Congress, and Hillary Clinton would probably be president-elect right now.
In light of these experiences, Republicans need to put aside any ideological nostalgia and focus on the challenges of the moment. In November, Republicans were buoyed by a renewed support from working-class Americans, many of whom have been battered by the trends of the past 15 years. The GOP has both partisan and civic reasons for trying to address economic disappointment and sclerosis. Heading into 2018, Republicans will need to be able to point to reforms that show that they have delivered for voters from a variety of economic circumstances. These reforms would entail updating (not necessarily abandoning) some conventional Republican agenda items.
Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, many Republicans have been enamored with tax reform as a central mechanism of economic policy. This year, many Republicans seem eager to kick off another round of tax cuts, but, in doing so, they might find it best to target these tax cuts to working families. In putting forward tax reform, the GOP might find that its political capital is better spent on tax benefits for raising children, say, than on a rate reduction for high-income earners. Tax benefits for working families will be harder for Democrats to demagogue and might provide more of an economic stimulus as well.
On immigration, “border security,” that favored Beltway invocation, will not be enough. In addition to putting forward efforts at interior enforcement of immigration laws (which are crucial for any enforcement regime), Republicans might champion reforms to the legal-immigration system by cutting or outright phasing out many guest-worker programs and reforming the legal-immigration system so that it prioritizes skills over dynastic connections. These reforms could win some Democratic support, too. For instance, a measure to curtail guest-worker programs could force Democrats to pick between supporting labor or courting deep-pocketed trans-nationalists. Reforming guest-worker programs could also be popular with both blue-collar and white-collar voters, some of whom have been displaced by the H-1B program.
Republicans have a clear mandate to reform the Affordable Care Act, a deeply flawed and unpopular bill. But they risk setting themselves up for a serious backlash if Republican-led reform ends up cutting health-care benefits for many current ACA beneficiaries. In charting a path forward on health-care reform, Republicans should remember that voters dislike the ACA primarily because they think it leads to worse health-care outcomes for them; the GOP will need to convince voters that their version of health-care reform will lead to better results than the ACA. If the current political dynamic is shaped by a sense of insecurity, policy changes (such as repealing the ACA while delaying a replacement over a period of years) that exacerbate insecurity could exact a political price. There could also be a political opportunity for Republicans in championing measures to expand the supply of medical care (for instance, by curtailing cartel-like behavior in the medical world).
Miscalculating on health-care policy helped wreck the Democratic party, and Republicans risk their own miscalculation on entitlements. While some on the right take it as an article of faith that “entitlement reform” is the holiest of conservative holies, many conservative and Republican voters feel decidedly otherwise. A poll taken at the end of 2016 found that Trump voters were even less supportive of cuts to Social Security and Medicare than were Clinton voters, and both groups were very hostile to such measures.
It’s telling that Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has sent signals that he plans a pitched battle over the nomination of Tom Price to be the secretary of Health and Human Services. This might be less about derailing Congressman Price’s nomination and more about baiting Republicans into a pitched battle over Medicare reform. By making Marco Rubio the Republican face of the Gang of Eight bill, Senator Schumer helped kneecap his 2016 presidential bid before it had even begun; he would no doubt like to do the same to the Republican legislative agenda of 2017. Republicans did not run on Medicare privatization in 2016, and pushing through Medicare reform on a party-line vote could very well exhaust the party’s political capital, leaving it unable to pass other items that would prove much more popular and more helpful for sustaining the GOP coalition. On health care, the party will have its hands full with trying to untangle the Affordable Care Act; without a significant bipartisan consensus, entitlement reform might be a bridge too far over the next few years.
Substantive rethinking might not be required for every area. For instance, defending sensible, conservative nominees for the federal courts would seem an obvious enterprise. The fear of a judiciary dominated by unrelenting leftists no doubt drew many center-right voters to the polls. But many of the problems of the 21st century — from trade policy to regulatory strategies — will require renewed imagination.
Some of the challenges facing Republicans are legislative, but some are also administrative. Donald Trump made his administrative skill as a businessman central to his campaign pitch, so he will need to show competence in administrating the vast bureaucracy of the federal government and in responding to crises foreign and domestic. The flawed roll-out of the ACA added to the tsunami that took out Democrats in 2014, and Republicans could face a similar storm if they struggle to implement their own reforms. As the recent contretemps over the reform of House ethics rules suggests, ethical issues can have a potent political charge, too.
The notion of a “mandate” often has more force as a media narrative than a constitutional principle. Nevertheless, Republicans should not delude themselves about the causes or extent of their victory in November. A combined swing of about a hundred thousand votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin would have led to a Hillary Clinton victory in November. Republicans have a sizable majority in the House, but they won the House popular vote by only about 1 percentage point (49.1 to 48 percent). Doubling down on failed strategies led to the current rout for Democrats, but a disappointed electorate will return power to Democrats if Republicans fail to make a serious effort at addressing some of the broader drivers of alienation and disappointment.
Governing has consequences. Those consequences have helped bring down more than one seemingly perpetual majority, and a record of success is a way of leaving a legacy more enduring than a temporary political majority.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm.