Republicans used to have big political ideas. Not anymore.



Among the things that make this an unusual election cycle is how empty the Republican political basket is right now.

Republicans have a very good chance of regaining control of the House of Representatives in next Tuesday’s election, and they also have a good chance of securing a majority in the Senate. Normally, the prospect of running the show in Congress would energize a party to promote its political agenda. But this is not a normal party.

Instead, Republicans at the national level have largely given up on proposing a framework for governance. (1) Yes, they still want to cut taxes for corporations and the rich. But that’s about the only clear position they’ve established. For a long time, the GOP claimed to be in favor of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, though it never really offered the “replacement” part beyond the broad outline.

It’s not unusual for the out of power party to run a campaign primarily based on calling the status quo terrible without highlighting an alternative agenda. When Democrats do it, however — and when Republicans in the 1980s and before did — they had policy ideas they wanted to turn into law.

For Republicans, that’s long gone. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has pointed out, Republicans are fighting inflation, but they have virtually no economic plans, let alone ones designed specifically to deal with the current economic situation. Instead, they are for the exact same combination of specific tax cuts and rhetorical condemnation of spending (without having a lot of specific government spending they are prepared to oppose) that they always support. Their proposal was presented as a jobs package when unemployment was high; now it’s supposedly the way to target inflation. The tax part is real policy, but whether you support it or not, it’s hard to take it seriously as an anti-inflationary measure.

And that’s probably the closest they have to a policy proposal. Republicans have fought against crime, but their political response is, as far as I can tell, to oppose the “defunding” of police departments. Given that virtually no Democrats backed radical police spending cuts in the first place, and Democrats in Congress sent a lot of money to states and cities to increase spending on police forces, it’s hard to see exactly what Congressional Republicans would do differently if given the chance. In any case, they do not tell anyone. (The situation is a little different at the state and local levels, where there are real policy differences between the parties in some areas. Even there, however, the main Republican policy proposition is usually simply to prevent a non-existent funding).

Immigration? A similar portion of impassioned rhetoric that is not backed by political ideas.

Republicans have become a party largely focused on symbolism, not substance. It’s easiest to see in their crusade against “woke” Democrats, which is almost entirely symbolic.(2) But it also works in normal policy areas, like health care or the economy.

The real excitement among Republican House candidates is in efforts to punish Democrats and the groups and individuals they dislike. This translates into very specific threats to use the need for a debt ceiling increase to force Democrats into concessions, as well as vague hints about what those concessions should be. And in confident statements that President Joe Biden and other prominent Democrats should be impeached, the grounds for impeachment seeming up in the air; it seems almost plausible that they will eventually impeach Biden for the charges to be determined later. (Yes, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy played down the idea of ​​impeachment, but hardly ruled it out. Given his track record of backing radical Republican conference members, he’s Hard to give much weight to what he says. Wrongful impeachment certain? No. Is it possible? Oh yes.)

Congressional Republicans have not acted on the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Rather than trying to find a political position, they were furious with Senator Lindsey Graham when he tried to propose a post-Dobbs bill that fellow Republicans could live with. The same can be expected if the court produces further disruptive decisions.

None of this is a function of the Republicans being a conservative party. Conservative parties in other countries develop substantial policy platforms and adopt them when the opportunity arises. Republicans too in the 1980s. Indeed, Republicans’ inability to take public policy seriously is one of the reasons why Trump-era Republicans are best viewed as a radical, not a conservative party. . Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming cares about foreign policy. She will not be at the next Congress. Former Arizona senator Jeff Flake and former Michigan representative Justin Amash, who both cared about fiscal policy, are long gone. It’s not just about their opposition to Trump; the truth is that a deep interest in conservative politics makes it almost impossible for a party that is focused on symbolism to be more concerned with fighting its enemies than legislating.

If there is a Republican majority in one or both houses of Congress, there are likely to be normal battles with Democrats over spending bills. And it’s at least possible that both sides will end up passing low-visibility legislation that avoids Fox News hot spots. But for the most part risks chaos with chilling consequences, especially from a Republican-controlled House — multiple impeachments with nothing close to legitimate charges, a long government shutdown, government default or even the overthrow of one or two closely contested House elections — seem more likely than any legislation intended to solve the nation’s problems.

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(1) See MSNBC’s Steve Benen’s “The Impostors” for the gory details.

(2) Purely symbolic politics can still generate real politics that can help or hurt people, as is the case with Republican outrage over trans people. And demonizing individuals and groups can produce all sorts of extremely chilling effects, directly and indirectly. What is unlikely to do is produce a well-structured public policy that tackles the real issues.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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