The GOP Can’t Govern
The GOP Can’t Govern
by Stephen Earl Bennett
There’s one important lesson to be learned from the Republican Party’s failure – after seven years of promising to do so – to repeal and replace Obamacare. That lesson could also be learned by paying attention to some Republican legislators’ reactions to the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to programs such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (Since we don’t know yet what will happen to Trump’s budget, the following focuses on the GOP’s fiasco over Obamacare.)
One does not have to favor either Obamacare or NEH and CPR to appreciate that lesson, which is there is at least one major difference – aside from their respective policy preferences – between the two major political parties.
The Democratic congressional members in Washington, DC – as illustrated in defending Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999, Obamacare’s passage, and lock-step votes in Congress against almost everything Donald Trump’s administration proposes – exhibit unanimity when party leaders demand it. (Forty-one Democratic senators out of 48, for example, attempted to filibuster Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and 45 voted against his confirmation.)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition of Democrats was divided into southern whites touting states’ rights, big-city machines in the North and their ethnic backers, the intelligentsia, and labor unions. Although FDR could pull the disparate elements of that coalition together – at least every four years after 1938 – the Democratic Party no longer needs a powerful personality to unify it. Chuck Schumer in the Senate, Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives, and Tom Perez at the Democratic National Committee, can do on a daily basis what it used to take a president to do every four years.
GOP legislators, on the other hand, save possibly when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held his Senate caucus against Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, seldom show the same level of unanimity. At that, contrary to McConnell’s desires, several GOP senators met with Garland – which is usually followed by a vote to consider a SCOTUS nominee – and at least three indicated they would vote to confirm him. (McConnell was able to get 51 Republican senators to vote to confirm Gorsuch; one GOP senator was absent due to illness.)
In the fiasco over Obamacare, three groups of GOP representatives were observable. The first were those House members who were willing to abide by the House GOP leaders’ plan, and supported by President Trump. Second, there were around 30 Freedom Caucus Republicans who believed Paul Ryan’s plan did not go far enough in eliminating government involvement in health insurance. Finally, there were the so-called Republican moderates who threatened to bolt if the party’s leadership gave in too much to the Freedom Caucus. Republicans’ internal divisions, plus the prospect of lock-step Democratic opposition to Obamacare’s elimination, guaranteed GOP failure.
Looking at the virtual unanimity exhibited by Democratic legislators, one can’t help thinking of the doctrine of responsible parties, which has been endorsed by some political scientists since at least the late 19th century. An admirer of the British political system, Woodrow Wilson was the first political scientist to advocate the creation of responsible political parties in America. A responsible party is one that exhibits sufficient unanimity among its legislative members to govern on the basis of an agreed-upon program, usually derived from what a later generation of political scientists would call “a broad-gauged, forensic ideology.” If the electorate can attribute the results of a party’s program, for good or for ill, to that party, it is, by definition, responsible.
If the failure to jettison the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act of 2010 tells us anything, it is that the GOP continues to manifest key facets of traditional American political parties that, collectively, have made a party unable to govern. The Republican Party is too internally divided, and many of its representatives in Congress are disinclined to follow the wishes of the president and others in the party’s leadership, to govern.
The United States is in an ultimately unstable situation insofar as its major political parties are concerned. The Democratic Party manifests the unanimity of ideology that would enable it to govern, but its ideological proclivities – which would be disastrous – repel sizable portions of the public. The Republicans can attract sufficient popular support to win control of the presidency, Congress, and large numbers of state officials, but – at least the failure to eliminate Obamacare suggests – it cannot govern.
One solution to today’s American dilemma would be for the Democrats to shift to the political center, and start attracting sufficient numbers of voters to succeed at the ballot box. That isn’t likely to happen in the near future, so we need to look elsewhere.
Three factors that are unrelated to the Republican Party per se, but played a role in failure to do away with Obamacare: President Trump, House Speaker Ryan, and the ill-fated American Health Care bill itself.
Donald Trump not only endorsed Ryan’s bill, he attempted to lobby for its passage. But, he was unable to influence GOP legislators’ decision.
Several factors shape a Chief Executive’s influence in Congress, not the least of which is belonging to the same party as the one in the majority. Two others are said to enable presidential leadership of Congress: (1) did he run ahead of, i.e., receive more popular votes, than many legislators in their districts, and (2) how is he faring in polls tapping public approval of his job performance.
Trump was in trouble on both accounts. Most of the GOP members of the House, especially in the Freedom Caucus, ran ahead of him in their districts, and most national polls show he has relatively low levels of public approval. Trump, in short, had relatively little leverage in the House, despite being a Republican president when the GOP controlled the body.
Turning to Paul Ryan, commentators have claimed that he owes his speakership to the Freedom Caucus that helped oust former Speaker John Boehner and then helped Ryan obtain the speakership. A factor that makes someone can also break her/him.
Third, there is the American Health Care Act bill itself. As Jay Cost notes, “(the) AHCA was a bad bill…. (It) was such a poorly constructed piece of legislation that it raises doubts about the [Republican] party’s commitment to the project, and even its competence.” In addition, public opinion polls offered less than widespread support. It didn’t help that the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of the bill’s long-term impact was interpreted as negative.
We come to the Republican Party itself. Like representatives of traditional American political parties throughout most of their existence, GOP members of the House of Representatives have several characteristics that hinder, if not preclude, sharing a common political ideology. They are recruited from their local district, mostly self-funded, elected to a two-year term, must run again every second year, and feel responsible mostly to the voters in their district. House GOP members, therefore, are far more likely to feel affinity with local politics than with those on the national level.
The following may also be a significant reason why the GOP can’t exercise the reins of government.
Since at least the early 1960s, when Barry Goldwater and his backers took control of the party’s nominating processes, a portion of the GOP’s base has been hostile to the central government. At the elite level, so-called moderates regained control of the party after Goldwater’s defeat and have been hostile to some in the party’s base.
Ronald Reagan and the Reaganites recaptured the GOP’s nominating machinery in the early 1980s, but the party’s elite never accepted either. Both Bush #41 and Bush #43 tacked to the center, and GOP elites continued to denigrate conservatives.
When, against many GOP elites’ wishes, Donald Trump emerged victorious in 2016, he brought with him many Americans who were hostile to government. At least some of them – such as the House Freedom Caucus and hardliners back home – manifest antipathy for government.
It would not be accurate to place all the blame for the GOP’s failure to eliminate Obamacare on the Freedom Caucus or their grassroots backers. Mistakes were made by the president, Speaker Ryan, and others in the Republican Party.
In the end, however, the party’s internal disagreements kept it from making hard decisions about the ACA. If a political party’s leaders in the executive and legislative branches cannot make hard choices that adversely affect, and may offend, some in the electorate, that party cannot govern. Democrats are willing to offend those whom they depict as bitter clingers and/or deplorables.
More Republicans need to learn that today’s America requires a willingness to use government when their party controls it. Conservatives need to show unanimity if they want to govern.
If a party cannot govern, large numbers of voters will look for one that will.
Stephen Earl Bennett is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati, where he was employed between 1969 and 1999. His Ph.D. is from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. From 2003 to 2008, he was Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Southern Indiana. Before pursuing the Ph.D., he taught Social Studies for two years at Nicolet High School in a suburb of Milwaukee. Bennett and his wife, who is president of the University of Southern Indiana, live in Evansville, Indiana.