Magazine May 1, 2017, Issue

How to Use a Majority

(Roman Genn)
It’s time for the GOP to step into the sun

The midcentury essayist and political commentator Samuel Lubell once observed that America’s two-party system defies the logic of supply and demand. A perfectly efficient political market should produce two parties swapping groups of supporters at will to achieve transitory majorities. Instead, Lubell noted, American parties rarely gain or lose demographic groups, and do so only over extended periods of time. Consequently, America always seems to have one party that is larger than the other. This larger party, what Lubell called the “sun party,” predominates on matters of policy, reducing the minority party to lunar status — a distinct body in the night sky, but one made visible chiefly by reflecting its rival’s light.

Lubell thought this asymmetry in party size encouraged the interest groups that made up the different party coalitions to behave in distinct but predictable ways. After all, the likelihood of election, more than any other force in American politics, shapes the political incentives of individual politicians, groups, and parties. Those in the majority party enjoy a higher probability of holding office but must deal with a broader array of interests and viewpoints. Those in the minority, by contrast, need unity to stand a fighting chance of electoral success. A healthy majority, therefore, inevitably hosts intense internal division over major policy issues. A healthy minority clusters tightly together and presents a uniform face to the world.

Since the New Deal, Republicans have acted like a lunar party. No longer. The Obama presidency reshuffled the coalitional deck that has long characterized American politics. Obama’s agenda depended on and assumed the persistence of a new base for the Democratic party: No longer a party anchored in the class politics of blue-collar whites, Democrats under Obama embraced an “ascendant coalition” built on the politics of race, gender, and sexuality.

That coalition proved loyal to Obama but to little else. For their part, the white working class  —  especially non-churchgoing blue-collar whites in the Midwest  —  gravitated to the GOP en masse even before Trump’s campaign. The Trump victory exposed the thoroughgoingness of their migration over the previous half decade, but did not cause it. More important, the GOP’s old base of white middle-class voters appears to be willing, at least for now, to vote in step with these new Republicans even as their material interests diverge.

This cross-class combination, forged over the last two decades, has swelled Republican ranks to levels not seen since shortly after the doughboys came home from France. Republicans are no longer a minority party bound together by necessity and ideology. Democrats have controlled the House for only four of the last 22 years, and they needed two bungled wars and an economic collapse to manage that. They will need a landslide to take it back in 2018. Even in deep-blue New England, only Connecticut and Rhode Island lack Republican governors. The list goes on.

If these changes stick, and there are many reasons to think that they will, Republicans must get used to a very different kind of politics. To date, however, the party’s transition into a majority has been seemingly unawares. Like a fumbling adolescent whose body has grown faster than his ability to control it, the GOP ranges awkwardly. Most recently, this pubescent inelegance killed the effort to repeal Obamacare and replace it with the American Health Care Act (AHCA). It will continue to hamper the GOP’s legislative ambitions if leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue fail to update their management approaches.

Above all, Republican leadership needs to realize that, while the minority party trades in time, the majority party trades in goods. For every member of the minority coalition, fracture is always the worst possible outcome. A divided minority party, already at a mathematical disadvantage, cannot win elections. A party that cannot win elections cannot deliver on the policy objectives of any of its coalition members, let alone all of them.

Therefore, come what may, the groups that make up the minority party stay at the table even if they lose every bargaining fight. They can expect no better treatment from the majority party, which neither needs them to win nor seeks a more diverse coalition to manage. To keep the minority-party coalition functioning, leaders rotate the burning priorities of their coalition members temporally. Today belongs to the defense hawks, but next time will belong to the budget balancers.

Republican leaders have been steeped in this kind of thinking. They are habituated to construe bargaining as a matter of trading everything away today for the promise of getting everything tomorrow. As a result, GOP leaders have put a premium on unity. They need not do so. Majority parties bargain in the now. Their groups have no reason to diminish their chances of electoral control by joining with the minority party. Their best strategy is therefore to extract as much as they can in each negotiation while still making sure a deal gets done. Even when faction leaders miscalculate and the majority party temporarily fractures, their time out of power tends to be brief. They therefore have few incentives to wait their turn, but plenty of reasons to take half a loaf at every round instead.

Under majority-party conditions, demanding a hasty up-or-down vote on the AHCA was the worst strategy available to House leadership and the White House. They gave the various factions in the GOP no opportunity to bargain and even less opportunity to be seen bargaining by their diverse constituencies. Instead of letting the various groups in the party go through successive rounds of publicly posturing, brokering, and compromising, Speaker Ryan and President Trump demanded that old and new Republicans alike vote in lockstep from the word “go.” In response, the rank and file revolted.

Republicans might get another crack at health-care reform. They might even succeed. A powerful desire to overhaul Obamacare persists in most corners of the party’s base, even if the precise meaning of “repeal and replace” defies consensus. Yet to call a mulligan on the AHCA and salvage repeal-and-replace, Republican leaders must start by addressing the new class divisions within their party. The effort to reform health care broke down because the House and the White House, drawing on different underlying constituencies, shuffled policy leadership. More fundamentally, old and new Republicans disagree over whether the priority in a government-backstopped health-care program ought to be reducing cost (old Republicans) or preserving coverage (new Republicans). Hostility to Obamacare brought the new and old Republicans together, but plans to repeal and replace it reveal that they remain far apart ideologically.

In any legislative effort, somebody, whether on Capitol Hill or at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, must lead. Yet throughout the brief, abortive AHCA process, the Hill and the White House struggled to determine who would take the reins. Unlike conventional power struggles, in which two entities grasp for mutually exclusive control, this one featured congressional Republicans and the Trump administration trying to shunt responsibility onto each other even as both recognized that their political credibility depended on a successful outcome. They came to resemble an old joke about two midwesterners who arrive simultaneously at the same door: They spend so much time insisting that the other go first that they forget why they showed up in the first place.

That President Trump could not whip his party on the Hill in the opening weeks of his administration  — that he in fact preferred not to  —  struck many as a historical oddity. For much of American history, and certainly during the post-war period, the president has set an agenda that the Congress has taken as its point of departure. There have, of course, been exceptions. The Republican wave of 1994 brought with it a bold attempt at taking legislative initiative. Yet the distinctiveness of that year’s Republican messaging strategy speaks to the novelty of policy leadership by a legislative chamber.

Moreover, the political conditions that faced Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich going into the first Clinton midterm could not have been more different from those facing Ryan during the first hundred days of the Trump administration. Ryan’s “Better Way” and Gingrich’s “Contract with America” both served as hybrids of policy blueprint and political messaging. But unlike the Better Way, the Contract with America was pitched self-consciously as a justification for divided government. Clinton’s presidency, won with only 43 percent of the popular vote, seemed adrift. His campaign strategy of “It’s the economy, stupid” had transmogrified in his first hundred days into a proposal allowing open military service by homosexual Americans. The effluvium of scandal, marital and monetary, clung to the Clinton White House. A Republican policy agenda, concentrating on popular procedural reforms, drew a clear contrast with a weakened Democratic administration.

Today, Republicans control both chambers of Congress, most of the country’s gubernatorial mansions, and the lion’s share of state legislative chambers. This is as close to one-party government as the GOP has gotten since Reconstruction (and military occupation of a third of the country over the coming months seems unlikely). Even if Republicans lack the jaw-dropping majorities enjoyed by Democrats in 2009, they have enough power to govern.

The closest analogy to the present  —  and the only unambiguous example of legislative agenda-setting within a dominant-party coalition  —  requires a return to the pre-war New Deal era. After the administrative debacle caused by the National Industrial Recovery Act, which Franklin D. Roosevelt deftly but disingenuously blamed on the Supreme Court, the Democratic Congress took the reins of power and crafted the alphabet soup of the Second New Deal, for which Roosevelt is chiefly remembered. Yet here too, conditions differ. FDR was presiding over the worst economic collapse in American history. Even as his First New Deal collapsed under its own weight, he benefited immensely from the widespread discrediting of the Republican agenda that the Great Depression caused. More important, he won overwhelmingly against Hoover in 1932. He had room to maneuver.

Whereas FDR carried all but six states and pulled in better than 57 percent of the popular vote, Trump is a minority president. Few if any House Republicans depended on him for their success. The GOP has dominated the House since 2010 and carried the national majority of House votes cast. Compounding the problem, Trump ran a ramshackle and even risible campaign, despite which he managed to win. Many House Republicans distanced themselves from their party’s nominee during the waning weeks of the election and paid no evident penalty for doing so. Consequently, Trump cannot count on a sense of shared destiny to tie his party in Congress to his priorities.

More profoundly, the tax-revolt ethos that carried the GOP into the House majority in 2010 shares little ideologically with the more statist, interventionist, and even corporatist vision proffered by Trump on the stump. Trump and House Republicans simply do not share a lot of priorities. Wisely or not, House Republicans have been running on Obamacare repeal since the bill’s passage, and have enjoyed considerable success doing so. Their message was aimed squarely at the middle-class old-Republican population. Health-care reform was not a central part of Trump’s appeal; if anything, he ran on preserving rather than disrupting entitlements. His willingness to promise zero changes to Social Security and Medicare endeared him to blue-collar voters skeptical of old Republicans but downright hostile to Democrats. This severe split in incentives exacerbated the leadership vacuum caused by Trump’s lackadaisical transition into government. In the absence of a clear message to sell the AHCA, House members across the party’s ideological spectrum got cold feet and abandoned it.

Electoral interest, reflected in ideology, drove this anxiety among members and militated against the bill’s passage. Again, Republicans have not internally decided whether the problem with the health-care system is principally its overall cost or the scope of its coverage — nor are they likely to do so. Democrats have faced the same question: In 2009, they called Obamacare the “Affordable Care Act,” but in the intervening years, they have moved left and are now uniformly committed to universal coverage. This shift is partially because their cost-conscious House members have been forcibly retired in the election cycles since Obamacare passed and partially because Democrats have discerned that “taking away care” is the most emotionally resonant line of political attack against Republicans on the issue. Recall the histrionic claims during the 2012 election that Paul Ryan wanted to throw Granny off the cliff.

The GOP, having taken over the districts and states lost by Democrats in the last eight years, did not suddenly turn these constituents into ardent free-marketeers. Therefore, the party is split between new Republicans, who want to maintain or even extend coverage within the limits of fiscal sanity, and old Republicans, who generally believe that coerced universality and fiscal sanity are mutually incompatible. We need not adjudicate here who has the better argument; we need merely observe that both a conservative firebrand such as Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and a purple-stater such as Maine senator Susan Collins agreed that the AHCA should be rejected because it drastically reduced coverage.

Democrats, who find themselves in a condition akin to that of Republicans in 2009, see no reason to get involved and are instead acting like a quintessential minority party. In 2009, the GOP was effectively dead at the national level and grievously wounded in the states. Beyond being simply a lunar party, the Republicans were in eclipse. Minority leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell recognized that, in order for the party to survive, they had to accomplish three things, only two of which were under their control. They had to keep the party voting together on major legislation, to concede or resist jointly. They had to draw bright contrast lines with the president and the Democrats, so that the GOP could be seen as a credible alternative to the White House’s agenda. Lastly, they had to hope like hell that Obama would commit a number of unforced errors.

The strategy worked. Boehner and McConnell succeeded at holding their coalitions together and holding the line. Obama was equally good at alienating a large chunk of his own supporters by promulgating onerous regulations and, above all, Obamacare.

Republicans today risk replaying this Obama pageant. To break the Democrats, the GOP needs to propose legislation that members of the other party simply cannot oppose. Doing so would force House and Senate Democrats either to collaborate with Trump as a group, something their base clearly will not tolerate, or to splinter and dilute their standing as an unambiguous national opposition.

Republicans who prioritize coverage over costs naturally prefer this strategy. Yet it has not achieved, and probably will not achieve, consensus status in the GOP. Consequently, Republican leaders must make a choice. They can push for a modest reform bill and actively court Democrats but be prepared to lose Republicans on the right wing of the conference. Alternatively, a revised bill could tack toward the Freedom Caucus’s position, restricting or eliminating essential health-benefit requirements. In this case, pro-coverage Republicans would indubitably defect, and Democrats would cling together in opposition, making for a narrow path to passage.

In the event repeal fails, all may not be lost. As central as Obamacare repeal is to the Republican psyche, much of the political harm Obamacare has done to the Democrats is already baked into the political cake. Obamacare is widely despised both by employed people and by those on Medicare. Its passage created massive regulatory uncertainty years before its major provisions came into effect, severely annoying Americans with employer-provided health insurance. Worse still for Democrats, it did so before it could deliver on either expanding coverage or slowing cost growth. Leave aside that Obamacare’s vaunted claims to do both have underwhelmed: The bill’s design — creating uncertainty before showing upside — inevitably inflicted a lot of political harm before it could deliver the policy windfall it promised.

Failing to repeal and replace Obamacare, by contrast, would preserve a frustrating and unsustainable status quo. But an unpassed bill will not create the kind of uncertainty around the provision of basic goods that characterized Obamacare. Moreover, those newcomers to the Republican coalition who are more amenable to government-backed health care and more likely to benefit from Obamacare can retain coverage. To put it bluntly, if they like their doctors, they can keep their doctors.

This brings us back to the big picture: the politics that majority parties make. Republican leaders will become better, with practice, at orchestrating inter-factional bargaining — but only if they believe that their new majority is durable. Blue-collar voters have gone Republican at the presidential level before. For instance, many ethnic blue-collar white populations, taken with Reagan’s instinctive patriotism and tough line on the Soviet Union, supported him in 1980 and 1984. Similarly, many religious working-class white voters, especially in the South, came into the GOP fold during the George W. Bush presidency. Yet while working-class social conservatives stuck with the Republican party even after Bush’s term ended, the so-called Reagan Democrats mostly went back to the other party.

Under Obama, secular working-class whites shifted, and did so at the state and federal levels. The media often intimate that these are “Trump Republicans,” followers of a personality rather than a party. Other commentators see in Trump’s election a “realignment” of the parties. The myth that “critical elections” drive realignment was proffered first by political scientist V. O. Key and then refined into political astrology by his successors E. E. Schattschneider and Walter Dean Burnham. It has burrowed so deep into the American political mind that it emerges almost casually in our electoral vernacular. Yet, as political scientist David Mayhew has pointed out, realignment theory does not do much to explain political change in America.

These new Republicans appear to have thoroughly broken with the Democrats. Cut adrift, they have been pulled, as if by force, toward the opposite pole of American politics. The evidence suggests that they will stay. John Gerring pointed out in Party Ideologies in America, 1828–1996 (1998) that voters typically decamp from one party for its rival only at a slow pace; but, as Don Green, Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler show in Partisan Hearts and Minds (2002), once a new party identity is established, it, too, is very difficult to change.

Unless the GOP absolutely botches the next few years, these new Republicans are likely here to stay. Majority-party politics, and the fractious internecine bargaining it implies, will be here to stay too. If GOP leaders can learn to wrangle their diffuse coalition, intra-party Republican politics will be characterized more by bargaining than by brinkmanship, even if its public ugliness persists. If not, Republicans may be bound back to the wilderness sooner rather than later.

– Mr. Thompson is a partner at the Applecart political consultancy.

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