The Democratic and Republican parties are both split, but in different ways. The Democrats are united on what they want but disagree on how far they should go. The Republicans can’t even agree on what they want, much less how to get it.
The Clinton–Sanders race for the 2016 Democratic nomination showed a party that was divided on tactics but mostly coherent on medium-term goals. Sanders pushed Clinton from the left on the minimum wage, health care, and taxes. Clinton wanted to raise the national minimum wage to $12 an hour, while Sanders wanted it to be $15. Clinton wanted to expand Obamacare with a public option, while Sanders wanted single-payer health care. Clinton wanted to raise taxes, while Sanders wanted to raise them much more.
It wasn’t just Sanders pushing Clinton to the left. The Democrats have become both more coherent and more radical on issues such as immigration and guns, but in these cases it was Clinton pushing Sanders to the left.
Sanders had been a skeptic of increased low-skill immigration and had voted against the George W. Bush–proposed amnesty that would have expanded low-skill guest-worker programs. Sanders had also been a relative moderate on guns.
Prior to the 2016 election, at the presidential level, the Democrats were relatively incoherent on both immigration and guns. Many on the left, including Sanders, were skeptical of low-skill immigration. On guns, the Democrats were an uneasy alliance of liberal activists who ultimately wanted to abolish private ownership of them and voters who were, at most, willing to add a few regulations to make it more difficult for criminals and children to get firearms. The 2016 election showed a party whose presidential candidates supported policies of expanding low-skill immigration and of harassing the gun industry, with an eye to making private gun ownership eventually so small that it could be drowned in a bathtub.
The Republicans are still coherent on some issues. Almost all elected Republicans are less pro-abortion-rights than the Supreme Court decisions Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Almost all elected Republicans are friendly to the right to private ownership of firearms. Almost all elected Republicans prefer federal judges to the right of Stephen Breyer.
There is still room for division. Some Republicans might want to ban all abortions while others might want only to restrict some. Republicans differ on this or that gun regulation. Most favor more Antonin Scalias on the Supreme Court, while some might prefer more Anthony Kennedys. In all of these cases, while there is division over how far to go, the direction is clear and the common ground is visible. There might be a fringe of dissenters on each of these issues (and they might make a difference in cases of narrow legislative majorities), but everyone knows that the Republicans aren’t going to nominate someone for president on a platform of government-subsidized partial-birth abortions.
But on crucial issues of political economy, the Republican party has become incoherent. On immigration, many party elites — John McCain, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio — have supported expanding low-skill immigration whenever they thought they could get away with it. Tom Cotton (as well as most Republican voters and most Americans in general) oppose increasing low-skill immigration.
This isn’t like the Democrats’ division over taxes or health care. The GOP immigration battle is between people who want altogether different policies. There is no common direction and the common ground is unclear.
The GOP is also incoherent on taxes and spending. Since Obama took office, Republican elites have tried out various plans that would, in sum, cut spending on old-age entitlement programs and cut tax rates and, most likely, tax liabilities for high-earners.
During the campaign, Trump flirted with raising taxes on the highest-earners, and that seems to have done him no harm with Republican voters. He eventually came out for tax cuts for high-earners (to the extent that he ever had intelligible plans about anything), but he also came out against any cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Meanwhile, most rank-and-file Republicans seem supportive of tax increases on the highest earners.
What we currently have is a situation in which large numbers of Republicans are willing to accept tax cuts for the affluent as long as it doesn’t seem to be coupled with any cuts to the entitlements that wage-earners plan to use when they retire. Trump managed to finesse this issue through the force of his intellectual dishonesty, but this is not stable in the long run. Again, neither the direction of policy change nor the common ground between Republican factions is visible.
Which brings us to health care. The brilliant Henry Olsen wrote that the failure of the Republican party to pass the so-called skinny repeal of Obamacare was “an exposure of the party’s intellectual incoherence.”
He wrote that the Obamacare repeal failed because the Republican leadership failed to take account of the incentives of Republican senators whose elections were dependent on moderate Democratic voters. Olsen wrote the ugly truth, but the whole truth is even uglier.
The “skinny” repeal of Obamacare that failed because of opposition from John McCain. Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski was so skinny that it would have left the bulk of Obamacare in place. The failure of the skinny bill wasn’t a failure to repeal Obamacare. The Republicans had already failed. The death of the skinny repeal was a failure even to pretend that Republicans were repealing Obamacare.
On health care, Republicans were united by the pre-Obamacare status quo. Now that the pre-Obamacare world is gone forever, Republicans don’t know what they want. Some would probably just get rid of Obamacare in return for the cuts to taxes and regulation and accept reduced health-insurance coverage as the price worth paying. More-prudent Republicans recognize that this would be a political disaster, but, as Ross Douthat has observed, they aren’t willing to commit to the kinds of spending (such as pre-filled health savings accounts) that would extend market-oriented health insurance to the population that gained coverage through Obamacare.
But that is probably giving the average Republican too much credit for specific policy preferences. Most Republican voters don’t have any kind of clear health-care reform in mind. That wouldn’t be so bad except that the average Republican member of Congress seems just as baffled. That is why the GOP Obamacare repeals kept going through such sudden and confusing mutations throughout the process.
During the campaign, Trump was able to keep the GOP coalition more or less together on health care by promising everything to everybody. This sounds a lot like what Obama did in 2008–10, but with one crucial difference. Obama was lying to swing voters. The Democratic base agreed with Obama on the fundamentals of the law, and stuck with him even after his lies were exposed — because they were always on board with the lying.
Trump, and the Republican party in general, were lying to everybody about health care. That is why, when it came time to make policy with actual tradeoffs, support for Obamacare repeal collapsed even among many Republican-identifiers.
Even when Obama was president, the Democrats were divided on health care — but they were coherent. Some would have liked single-payer right away, and others might have wanted something less ambitious than Obamacare, but they agreed on the direction in which policy should move. Obamacare was the common ground. Right now, the Republicans are incoherent on health care. There is no common ground. The situation is even worse than the GOP incoherence on immigration. At least on immigration, there are clear sides and alternatives. When it comes to health care, Republicans don’t have even that.
This is important because it is easier for parties to make policy when they are coherent, even if they are divided. The Democrats were coherent on health care and they got Obamacare. They are incoherent on the big banks (Sanders wanted them broken up and Clinton didn’t), and the big banks would likely have survived even if Clinton had won and the Democrats had large majorities in both houses of Congress.
The Republicans are coherent on judicial politics and the result is Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch. The Republicans are incoherent on immigration, the tax-entitlement nexus, and health care. The result is legislative paralysis and missed opportunities. The first step to fixing this situation is recognizing that nobody has won the intraparty debate on any of the issues. The second step is for somebody to win it.
— Peter Spiliakos is a columnist for the online version of First Things.