Why Republicans Can’t Govern was the featured article in the FiveThirtyEight Significant Digits email yesterday. “Trump’s deal with Democrats shows that controlling the White House and Congress isn’t enough.” Why not?
Summary snippets provide an answer.
You might think that securing the White House, Senate, House of Representatives and a majority of seats on the Supreme Court would enable a party to practically dictate laws and policy. But so far, unified government hasn’t worked out too well for Republicans. The GOP has controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency since January but has no major legislative accomplishments to show for it. President Trump finally managed to close a big deal last week, to stave off a government shutdown and Treasury default for the next three months and secure hurricane disaster relief. And yet he cut the deal with Democrats — against the wishes of GOP leaders.
One thing the Republicans have done, however, is demonstrate that controlling government isn’t enough to govern. Since the U.S. system is designed to slow down and complicate attempts at change, even parties in control of the whole government have to learn how to navigate it. What makes that so hard? There are several things that a majority party needs in order to convert political victories into legislative ones, and the GOP doesn’t have them.
A prioritized agenda
This one seems obvious but can be deceptively difficult. Research shows that agenda control is a key source of power for the majority party in Congress. For a party to effectively implement an agenda, it has to (i) agree on what that agenda is, and (ii) how that agenda should be prioritized. The first part isn’t a given; Republicans largely support lower taxes, for instance, but — as the recent healthcare debate showed — they are less unified on health care policy.
Modern Republicans face an additional problem. Much of the party’s stated governing ideology rests on the premise that “government is the problem,” which makes it difficult to develop a coherent agenda for determining what the government should be doing. And currently, there isn’t much else unifying a party fragmented along lines of ideology, openness to compromise and support for the president.
The GOP is finding this out the hard way. Some of the few core positions that have been staked out by Republicans in Congress — such as bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act — have proven very unpopular. Trump also ran into this problem with the Russia sanctions bill: He opposed it, but widespread public support translated into veto-proof majorities in Congress.
In contrast, the mid-century Democratic Party had lots of disagreements, but its major agenda items, such as Medicare, were generally popular with the public. Historian Julian Zelizer has explained how Johnson’s extensive agenda — arts funding, fair housing, immigration laws — was successful, in part, because the electorate had voted in a liberal Democratic Congress in 1964, signaling support for a liberal policy direction.
A way to address internal divisions
Even with a governing agenda and public support, there will be disagreements over specifics, clashes between factions and disputes over resource allocation. Institutions can help resolve these disputes — especially organizational rules in Congress that create incentives for compromise. The strong committee model of the mid–20th Century provided this: Congressional committees enjoyed sole jurisdiction over their issues, and often worked across party lines. Under this system, elected official could be responsive to the needs of their districts, and worried less about party discipline.
This approach wasn’t perfect, of course. There were plenty of conflicts, and critics complained about the lack of party discipline and ideological definition. But it did allow for greater legislative productivity than we see today. Strong committees were replaced after the reforms in the 1970s (and another set of changes in the 1990s) that empowered party leadership, creating a structure that rewarded party loyalty and often discouraged ideological diversity.
So what’s the outlook for the GOP as a governing majority? Various public breaks between Trump and congressional Republicans — including the most recent one over the debt ceiling — illustrate that the GOP coalition hasn’t yet figured out how to overcome its differences. But that’s a hard lesson to learn, let alone apply for any length of time. The coalition of New Deal-era Democrats eventually fell apart, after all — once they finally addressed the challenge of civil rights, the party’s hold on majority status started to crumble under the weight of disagreements over this and other policies.
An opposition party has the luxury of a unifying objective — pointing out the shortcomings of the majority. As the musical Hamilton tells us, “governing is harder.”
But that - “pointing out the short comings of the majority” - is not enough. The opposition party, the Democrats, must stand for something other than, or in addition to, opposing Trump. Without a clear message that resonates among a solid majority of voters, why should Dems be seen as anything other than a new Party of No? That’s a question addressed by a new report in Politico.
‘People Don’t Really Know What We Stand For’ is a Global Politico special report authored by Susan Glasser. The BIG question is: Democrats love to hate Trump. But is it enough to rescue the party?
Are Democrats today really anything other than the Party of Not Donald Trump? Will they ever stop feuding over Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the divisive 2016 primary that helped lead to Trump’s November upset?
As Washington wonders whether President Trump’s surprise deal with congressional Democrats to extend the debt ceiling heralds a new political reality—or just a spat among ruling Republicans—the complicated new politics of the Democratic Party are often left out of the mix.
But make no mistake: Democrats are just as divided as Republicans these days. Embarrassed by their election losses, they are fighting over everything from their diagnosis of why Trump beat them in 2016 to how much to stake themselves on an oust-him-at-all-costs strategy now. Their internal battles may not be as sexy as the unprecedented hostile takeover of the GOP by an outsider president not beholden to it—yet they are just as consequential.
Consider this debate that broke out last week between Democratic Party Chairman Tom Perez and historian Michael Kazin.
I’d convened them along with several other leading Democrats for a special episode of The Global POLITICO on how the party planned to dig itself out of the Trump hole. But it only took a couple of minutes before it was clear that it’s much easier for them to attack Trump than articulate a shared mission.
Perez, President Barack Obama’s former labor secretary, was elected this spring to chair the beleaguered Democratic National Committee, and he insisted the party’s woes were largely tactical and technocratic—electoral reverses that could be undone by investing in “technology infrastructure” and pursuing a more aggressive, “every ZIP code strategy” of campaigning.
“It’s heartening to hear all that, Tom, but one thing that you’re not talking about is, what those values are, what the message is, what the policies are,” responded Kazin, a Georgetown scholar writing a history of the Democratic Party and editor of Dissent magazine who pointed out that his young associates and Sanders acolytes like them are pushing for a much sharper left turn. “They really want a very tough, progressive message.”
Perez had demurred when I asked whether he should commission an autopsy report on what went wrong for the party in 2016, but Kazin quickly offered up his own. And it was pretty devastating.
“One of the problems that Hillary Clinton had, and one of the problems that Democrats still have,” he said, “is people don’t really know what we stand for.”
The ensuing back-and-forth made it clear there was in fact no answer to that yet beyond agreement over their shared disdain for Trump and the extent to which animus toward the 45th president is the galvanizing factor behind the unprecedented mobilization of Democrats across the country well in advance of next year’s midterm elections. … [read more commentary and the transcript in the Politico report].
Trump’s hard core base, and many Republicans beyond that, voted for Trump and will do so again. They’ve proven time and again that all of Trump’s faults, perpetual lying among them, are not enough to turn his voters against him. To successfully rise above that wave, Democrats must “articulate a shared mission”- that is, telling compelling stories that offer a Better Deal to America.