It sometimes seems as though the true goal of Donald Trump’s presidency is to make him the center of every conversation. If so, it must be said that the president has to a quite remarkable degree succeeded in yet another far-fetched ambition. The trend may be particularly pronounced among conservatives who think about politics for a living. For them, how to think about Trump is topics one, two, and three, and it lurks behind four, five, and six as well.
The debates about Trump are important ones, and there is no reason they should not proceed. Anyone who believes that Trump poses a major threat to the rule of law or that his opponents might well pull off a kind of coup against him — and some serious and intelligent people believe each of these things — will naturally be inclined to put off other political questions as beside the point. Someone who thinks one of these things might well conclude that to dwell on other issues is to shirk from duty in a moment of national crisis.
But conservatives need to have another conversation, one that is not about Trump but about what we want out of politics. What is our agenda? How do we want to change government policy? Neither Trump’s most ardent fans nor the most committed Never Trumpers have been saying much to answer these questions.
Last year, Republicans began their first period of control of the House, Senate, and presidency since 2006. After only eleven months, they largely gave up using that power to try to accomplish anything legislatively. The Senate is confirming judges, and the executive branch continues to make regulatory changes, but Republicans aren’t doing much more than that. Nor are congressional Republicans campaigning on their plans for a productive 2019 if voters extend their control over the government this fall.
Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration are not always in sync. Most of the representatives dislike Trump’s tweets and his tariffs. Republicans in Trump’s circle have sometimes suggested, at least off the record, that they would be better off with a Democratic House. But there is no real division between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on the legislative agenda. Congress is not doing much, and Trump is not pressing it to do more. Conservatives who aren’t in government have, for the most part, been too busy celebrating or condemning Trump to notice the hole where an agenda should be, or to try to fill it.
In the absence of a policy agenda, Republicans seem increasingly inclined to rely on cultural controversies to win votes. To the extent we let arguments over football players and the flag become the sum and substance of our politics — even when our arguments are right — we practically resign ourselves to the government we have. Beneath the anger is complacency.
This problem has been developing for some time. For many years, conservatives could get by with an old agenda inherited from Ronald Reagan. That agenda, partly because of its success, over time became outdated. It also became a poorer fit for a party that increasingly appealed to working-class rather than professional-class whites. During the 2016 primaries, Donald Trump triumphed in part because he recognized the irrelevance of the old agenda. But he was unable or unwilling to supply a new one of his own that fleshed out his instincts and themes.
Even on immigration, his signature issue, he went back and forth during the course of the campaign on how to handle illegal immigrants who are already here, and he did not state a position on legal-immigration levels until several months into his presidency. By now, even his biggest critics must admit that he has enormous political talents, and even his biggest fans must admit that those talents do not include policy development.
This is not an entirely bad thing. The idea that the president should set the policy agenda is not in the Constitution, was not the American practice for much of our history, and was introduced into our politics by progressives in order to promote their vision of government. One of the things conservatives need to do in our era is rebuild our system’s capacity to govern without that type of presidential leadership.
We have to start by identifying the changes in government that we want to see. Only after conservatives have an agenda can politicians decide which items on it they wish to advance, when, and how. Only once we have goals can we make intelligent compromises based on achieving them.
My own list of what conservatives should seek would begin with four areas where government policy is badly in need of reform.
The first is health care. Republican politicians may wish for Obamacare to be behind them as an issue, but reality is not going to oblige. It remains the case that premiums are rising — to some extent because of Obamacare, to some extent because of the changes that Republicans have made to Obamacare. It remains the case that Obamacare has left many people with policies that are expensive and cover routine care but include very high deductibles that leave them exposed to large costs if they develop serious medical conditions, which is roughly the opposite of what insurance ought to do.
Liberals and Democrats have their answers to the public’s dissatisfactions with health care, answers all of which essentially move toward a more government-centric system. If as conservatives and Republicans we confine ourselves to critiquing those plans, we will inevitably cede momentum to them. We need our own solutions.
Those solutions should aim, above all, to create a market in which nearly everyone can buy at least a cheap, renewable policy that protects him against catastrophic costs — and can buy more than that if he is willing and able to spend more. Deregulation will be needed to accomplish this goal. If insurers want to offer people cheap, renewable policies that protect them from catastrophic medical expenses, and people want to buy those policies, the federal government should not stand between them. Given the state of health-care politics, the key first step in moving toward such a market is to devolve power from the federal government to the states. Washington has shown that it cannot make health-insurance markets better. We ought to let the states try different approaches.
Second, conservatives ought to take on the higher-education cartel. Tuitions have kept rising, and dropout rates are unacceptably high. Many people are graduating without the skills needed to take jobs that require college degrees. Many people are not graduating at all: The incomes of people who go to college but don’t finish are only slightly higher than the incomes of people who don’t go at all — the big difference being that many of the first group also have college-loan debt to pay off.
In short, a system that is supposed to be a ladder for upward mobility has become to a significant degree a bottleneck in it. In reforming this system, we should open up multiple fronts. We should create new options for financing college, such as income-share agreements. We should create new options for accrediting institutions of higher education so that more experimentation is allowed. We should expand online-learning options. We should require colleges whose students have high levels of loan default to pick up a share of the tab. We should make it possible for prospective students and their parents to know how graduates of different colleges, and of different departments within those colleges, fare in the job market. And we should clear the way for professional certificates, apprenticeships, and other paths to gaining skills for well-paid employment that do not require a college degree.
Third, we need to bring federal spending under control. If we are serious about that goal, there is no alternative to tackling the growth of the entitlement programs, especially Social Security and Medicare. The president has said he opposes cuts in these programs. But we do not need to cut benefits to make them solvent; we need only restrain their growth.
Social Security has two main functions: It’s a paternalistic forced-savings program, and it’s a redistributive program. Both are designed to keep people from being destitute in old age. It has been successful in reducing elderly poverty. But it has not ended elderly poverty even as it spends and taxes much more than needed to achieve that goal. And it has suppressed savings, reduced the country’s capital stock, and thereby reduced economic growth.
We should move toward a more rational system that guarantees against poverty — by setting a minimum benefit at or higher than the poverty level. At the same time, we should change the way benefits are calculated. As it stands, the program is designed so that the person in the middle of the income distribution who retires this year gets a bigger check than the person in the middle of the income distribution who retired in 1998. And the middle-income person who will retire in 2038 is scheduled to get a higher benefit still, even after adjusting for inflation.
If we changed the program so that average benefit levels rose to keep up with inflation but no faster than that, we would solve 94 percent of the program’s solvency problem over the next 75 years. At the very least, we should hold benefit growth to inflation for people with high lifetime earnings. They can, after all, afford to save more for their own retirements.
Medicare should be reformed in accordance with the same principles. A safety net should be maintained; those with high lifetime earnings should have to pay for a higher share of their health costs in retirement; and changes should be implemented gradually so as give tomorrow’s retirees time to adjust to them.
Fourth, we need immigration reform. Around 40 percent of illegal immigrants to our country came here legally but overstayed their visas. A wall, whatever its merits, would not address this problem. If we want to instill respect for the law and have control over whom we let in, we have to make employers verify the legal status of new hires — and give them the tools to do so. Once we have established that Washington has the political will to enforce the immigration laws, we can turn to debating whether to grant legal status to illegal immigrants who have been here a long time, formed community ties, and avoided further trouble with the law. If we don’t prove that the law will be enforced going forward, then providing legal status will be an invitation for more illegal immigration followed by yet another amnesty. We should end that cycle.
Legal immigration needs to be reformed, too. It should be oriented more toward the recruitment of high-skilled immigrants and less toward the reunification of extended families. We don’t have a national interest in low-skilled immigration on the scale we have allowed it, and low-skilled immigration puts unnecessary pressure on people at the low end of the labor market. The price is paid by many low-skilled immigrants themselves. But if immigrants do not succeed in America, we all pay a price. The precise numbers can be negotiated, but our direction ought to be clear.
These ideas are very far from a complete agenda, and some of them might well make politicians blanch. Doubtless there are many other ideas that conservatives can and should pursue. There is much more to do. But that’s the point: There is much more to do. The conservative themes of decentralization, local control, markets, accountability, national self-confidence: If they are not to be lifeless abstractions, they must be put into practice and shown to work. Wherever they stand on Trump, conservatives have to engage in this task.