One of the more unfortunate themes of the Trump era is that, even though Donald Trump seized the Republican nomination as a result of the deeper policy paralysis of the GOP, his rise has itself often become an excuse for even more paralysis. Important — but difficult — questions about how to govern in the 21st century have been endlessly deferred thanks to an endless obsession with the persona of the president. In the New York Times, Jonathan Martin surveys House Republicans’ frustrations with November’s midterm defeat. In this story, House Republicans spend plenty of time griping about the president, and some argue that the party needs to spend more time promoting “diversity” within its congressional ranks. However, Republicans in Congress might want to spend some more time thinking about the way that their own policy choices contributed to November’s results.
The presence of a Republican — any Republican — in the White House made it very likely that Republicans would lose the House of Representatives in 2018; 1978 was the last time the incumbent party did not lose the House when it entered a midterm with unified control of the federal government. Nevertheless, the perpetual spectacle of White House Agonistes likely created additional headwinds for Republicans. The president’s feuds in and with the press seem to have turned off some swing voters.
But the unpopularity of the (thin) legislative record of the 115th Congress might also have cost Republicans votes. The attempted “repeals” of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 had basement-level support. For instance, the American Health Care Act garnered only 17 percent approval according to Quinnipiac. Meanwhile, the tax bill trimmed deductions (such as the one for state and local taxes) popular with many of the suburbanites who used to reliably vote Republican. In many polls, these marquee legislative proposals proved less popular than Donald Trump, which suggests that voter opposition to these policies cannot be solely attributed to skepticism about the Trump administration. Nor does it seem that merely changing the sex or ethnic identity of the spokespeople for these policies is a guaranteed way to make them more popular.
Instead, Republicans might benefit from thinking about how they can pivot to confront the issues that concern many Americans, including members of their base and swing voters. This could be a way of making the party more inclusive and more effective. In the latest issue of the magazine, Michael Brendan Dougherty has some thoughts on the way that the president (and other Republicans) could target policies to promote the interests of working families, Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin address health-care policies, and Alexandra DeSanctis notes the electoral success of some Republican Senate candidates who tried to channel populist energies on the stump. All this suggests that there are some policy options out there for Republicans who want to put forward an agenda that might bear more fruit for the national interest as well as their political ambitions.