Politics & Policy

Where Are the Republican Party’s Leaders?

Presdident-elect Trump and House Speaker Ryan on Capitol Hill, November 10, 2016. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
After finally winning control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the GOP has proven gun-shy.

The House Republican conference has unveiled a health-care bill that pleases just about no one. Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times on Wednesday, described the “American Health Care Act” this way:

It’s a piece of legislation caught betwixt and between: It includes enough in the way of tax credits and regulation to be labeled “Obamacare lite” by the party’s would-be ideological enforcers, but it also promises to throw many people off the insurance rolls — many Trump voters included — for the sake of uncertain policy goals. . . . So it’s a bill that nobody on the right much likes: Not libertarians and not reformocons, not right-wing donors and not mushy moderates, not the Tea Party senators who promised full repeal and not the swing-state senators who well know that their own voters want the coverage expansion to endure. As for Americans who aren’t ideologically committed, forget about it: Passing the bill would be an invitation to a political beheading.

It’s difficult to explain charitably what is taking place. It’s not as if Republicans had cloaked their intentions toward Obamacare. House Republicans voted several times during the Obama administration to fully repeal the former president’s signature law. They passed dozens upon dozens of measures to cripple the law. Time and again, in no uncertain terms, they promised repeal and a better system — better than Obamacare, and better the regulatory patchwork that preceded it.

Nor was time short. The Affordable Care Act was signed into law seven years ago this month. There has been no lack of debate during that time about the best strategies for reform, policy-wise and politically. Republican legislators have proposed several alternatives, and they have had ample time to hammer out a pleasing compromise.

But something else has happened: Finally in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the GOP has proven gun-shy. Afraid of a strident reform that upsets anyone, they’ve put forward a timid reform that upsets everyone.

This is the kind of thing that happens when a party has no leaders. Under normal circumstances, that would be Donald Trump. But the president forged his path to the White House by unabashedly smashing certain conservative idols — not all of which needed wrecked — and alienating allies, and he has expressed little interest in figuring out how to marry his unusual electoral coalition’s interests to conservative principles. Erratic, undisciplined, and self-absorbed as he is, he is not well-equipped to envision, or shepherd, an agenda that can bridge that divide.

The Republican party doesn’t know what it believes right now.

And if the Republican president can’t lead the Republican party, who can? On key issues, such as immigration, House speaker Paul Ryan is out of step with the majority of his party’s voters, and he has not articulated a robust policy agenda that can appeal to those who found a champion in Trump; his “Better Way” agenda, for all of its merits, has no traction in the Trump White House. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is second to none in parliamentary subterfuge. But a leader of men he isn’t. What of the savior-senators of yore, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio? The 2016 election exposed their opportunism. Ben Sasse is a thoughtful, articulate proponent of a civic republicanism of which we’re much in need. But his legislative record is sparse, and he has no obvious allies. Who else?

But, of course, this leadership crisis is at root a crisis of faith. The Republican party doesn’t know what it believes right now. If traditional conservatism is not selling, maybe it’s a lousy product — so goes the thinking. Donald Trump’s rise was not a cause but an effect of that loss of confidence; this bill is another.

That crisis can be overcome. What’s needed is not to dispense with conservative principles. What’s needed is the political imagination to adapt conservative principles to changing conditions in the lives of millions of Americans.

But that will be difficult, and it’s not at all clear that Republican leaders are up to the task.

Most Popular

Culture

What We’ve Learned about Jussie Smollett

It’s been a few weeks since March 26, when all charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped and the actor declared that his version of events had been proven correct. How’s that going? Smollett’s celebrity defenders have gone quiet. His publicists and lawyers are dodging reporters. The @StandwithJussie ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Lessons of the Mueller Probe

Editor’s Note: The following is the written testimony submitted by Mr. McCarthy in connection with a hearing earlier today before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on the Mueller Report (specifically, the first volume of the report, which addresses Russia’s interference in the 2016 ... Read More
Elections

Kamala Harris Runs for Queen

I’m going to let you in on a secret about the 2020 presidential contest: Unless unforeseen circumstances lead to a true wave election, the legislative stakes will be extremely low. The odds are heavily stacked against Democrats’ retaking the Senate, and that means that even if a Democrat wins the White House, ... Read More
World

Why Are the Western Middle Classes So Angry?

What is going on with the unending Brexit drama, the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s election, and the “yellow vests” protests in France? What drives the growing estrangement of southern and eastern Europe from the European Union establishment? What fuels the anti-EU themes of recent European elections and ... Read More
Energy & Environment

The Climate Trap for Democrats

The more the climate debate changes, the more it stays the same. Polls show that the public is worried about climate change, but that doesn’t mean that it is any more ready to bear any burden or pay any price to combat it. If President Donald Trump claws his way to victory again in Pennsylvania and the ... Read More
White House

Sarah Sanders to Resign at End of June

Sarah Huckabee Sanders will resign from her position as White House press secretary at the end of the month, President Trump announced on Twitter Thursday afternoon. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1139263782142787585 Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, succeeded Sean ... Read More
Politics & Policy

But Why Is Guatemala Hungry?

I really, really don’t want to be on the “Nicolas Kristof Wrote Something Dumb” beat, but, Jiminy Cricket! Kristof has taken a trip to Guatemala, with a young woman from Arizona State University in tow. “My annual win-a-trip journey,” he writes. Reporting from Guatemala, he discovers that many ... Read More