The Party of No Content

Republicans are remarkably quiet on how they would govern and what they seek to accomplish in the coming years.

Shutterstock / The Atlantic

What does the Republican Party want? Although Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has shifted into full, strange force with an empty 2020 convention, it is a hard question to answer.

In June, the Fox News host Sean Hannity asked Trump to name his top-priority agenda items for his second term at a town hall held in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The commander in chief’s answer: “You know, the word experience is still good. I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that, but the word experience is a very important word. It’s a very important meaning. I never did this before. I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington, I think, 17 times. All of a sudden, I’m president of the United States. You know the story. … Now I know everybody, and I have great people in the administration. You make some mistakes. An idiot like [the former National Security Adviser John] Bolton, all he wanted to do is drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to kill people.”

Trump campaign’s website provides no clearer message. It offers a threadbare recounting of his supposed accomplishments from his first term and a selection of festive collectibles. It contains no detailed forward-facing policy section, no vision of how to recover from the pandemic recession, no projection of a post-coronavirus future. There’s just a list of bullet points that the campaign put out on the eve of the convention. “Partner with Other Nations to Clean Up our Planet’s Oceans,” “Build the World’s Greatest Infrastructure System”: These are not plans so much as slogans, albeit ones that aren’t particularly catchy.

The GOP in general is remarkably quiet on how it would govern and what it seeks to accomplish in the coming years. Breaking with precedent, the party decided against producing an original platform for the 2020 convention. (Put differently: It no-platformed itself.) And Republican leadership has gone dark on a huge swath of issues: balancing the budget, reforming entitlement programs, tackling climate change, improving public education, reducing student-loan debt, and ameliorating racial inequalities—as well as getting the country through the pandemic and out of the recession.

With the planet burning, the virus killing, the economy collapsing, and millions of Americans preparing to vote, the country’s leading political cabal has moved into a queasy post-policy space: Its aperture has narrowed to just a few issues; its desire to try to pass major, proactive legislation has withered. This is not just proof that a man as interested in his own image as he is uninterested in briefing books should not be president. It is also a sign that American democracy is in peril.

This summer, I asked politicians, think-tank staffers, electoral consultants, political scientists, and pollsters why the Republican Party has felt so small, so devoid of vanward ideas to help Americans. The answer lies with the party as well as the president; this development is due to decades-long demographic, cultural, and political trends, not just the makeup of the Trump administration. And understanding how Republicans moved past policy requires looking not just at the negative space they left behind, but the positive space they have chosen to fill.

Recall that Trump’s 2016 campaign was full of punchy lines: balancing the budget, repealing the Affordable Care Act, replacing it with a forever-TBD universal health plan, reshoring manufacturing, ending the trade deficit, building a beautiful border wall, making America great again. Trump made none of that happen, aside from a few miles of expensive fence.

Nor did Republicans in Congress seize the reins when Trump came into office. Given the gift of a unified government for two years, the GOP did not privatize Social Security, block-grant Medicaid, or pass the balanced-budget amendment. That is, it abandoned the raft of policy plans it developed under House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. It did manage a giant tax cut, with little reform of the underlying code; some sanctions; and a criminal-justice bill. Democrats indicated a thousand times that they would vote for a bipartisan infrastructure plan. Even that went nowhere.

Comparing today’s GOP with that of prior Congresses and prior administrations is instructive. The Obama White House in its first term brought to fruition the children’s health-insurance expansion, the Affordable Care Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, while also pushing hard on immigration reform and major jobs legislation, and nearly completing a deal with Republicans on the debt. The George W. Bush administration got sweeping tax cuts, the Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, Medicare Part D, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, all while prosecuting two major wars.

In the assessment of Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution, Trump “wasted” his early congressional majority, and his record “pales beside those of other modern presidents.” The party is not making many big promises going into the 2020 election, either.

The most obvious explanation is that Trump does not care much about policy. He often seems uninterested in the work of the presidency and the extraordinary power and opportunity it affords, and uninterested in learning what he could do with it if he felt like it. He does not read intelligence reports or think-tank proposals. He does not dine with the nation’s top experts. His administration is filled with neophytes and yes-men. He watches a lot of television and plays a lot of golf.

Even his 2016 promises were rhetorical, not technocratic; Trump was to be taken seriously but not literally, as you might have heard. “Trump is not really much of a programmatic policy maker. He’s about themes and values,” Pippa Norris, a comparative political scientist at Harvard, told me, citing his nativism and nationalism as those core values.

Once in office, then, it was perhaps unsurprising that Trump tended to do things the easy way, tossing off executive orders rather than engaging in Lyndon B. Johnson–type persuasive politics to get big, complicated bills passed. The bully pulpit and the presidential pen became the main tools the White House used to instantiate Trump’s priorities: making it easier to drill for oil and harder to get Medicaid; closing the country off, caging immigrants, and punishing noncitizens; and engaging in a quixotic trade war with China. More recently, Trump has used executive orders to try to provide relief from the coronavirus-induced recession, as Congress has stalled on another aid bill.

But the slowdown in legislating is not Trump’s fault exclusively. Conflicts between the House and the Senate; the constraints of the Byrd rule, which bars certain bills from increasing the budget deficit outside of a 10-year window; polarization moving the parties apart; partisanship rendering cross-aisle compromise electorally toxic: All of those factors have made it less and less likely that Congress will do its job. An analysis by the Pew Research Center, for instance, found that the share of legislation deemed “substantive,” in that it changed federal law or federal spending rather than, say, renaming a post office, was 20 percentage points lower in the 115th Congress than in the 105th.

Even when a single party controls both houses and the White House, legislation is a slog, thanks to the use and the abuse of the filibuster. This makes the Senate minority a potent check on the Senate majority. “People think unified government means that Congress will do more,” Binder told me. “But even unified governments have become less productive over time.”

Politicians cited the enmity within Congress and negative partisanship—where a hatred of the other side becomes even more important than belief in one’s own side—as other crucial factors. “When you want to accomplish anything big in this country, under our system, you really have to have buy-in from both sides,” John Faso, a former representative, told me. “If you’re incendiary, and if you talk in extreme ways, it gets you on MSNBC or Fox, but it doesn’t help us solve the problem. I think that’s part of why we were not successful in fixing the health-care system.”

Divisions within the GOP have gummed up the works, as well. Trump’s Bannonite, flame-throwing populism cracked open a party already ideologically fractured. Business Roundtable types supported reducing impediments to trade. Trump wanted a trade war. Fiscal hawks wanted to reform the entitlement programs. Trump vowed not to touch them. Moderate Republicans wanted comprehensive immigration reform. Trump embraced a nationalist, isolationist policy. Many conservative Beltway types hate the Trump agenda and the values that he represents.

The base is more fractured on policy issues than is commonly recognized too. The political scientist Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University has argued that conservatives are fairly consistent across the board in, say, revering the American flag and expressing antipathy toward Muslims, immigrants, and atheists. They are united in the culture war. They are divided, however, on kitchen-table economic issues. Average Republicans are much more supportive of redistribution and environmental law than elite Republicans, for instance. “A majority of Republicans endorse government efforts to regulate pollution, provide a decent standard of living for people unable to work, and ensure access to good health care,” Bartels wrote in a 2018 study. “Substantial minorities favor reducing income differences and helping families pay for child care and college.”

One final reason why Trump’s GOP can’t point to many legislative victories: The kinds of bold, big policy proposals once floated by powerful Republicans were so unpopular as to be politically suicidal. Overturning Obamacare: unpopular, difficult one way or another. Replacing it with something else: unpopular, so hard to do that Republicans never came up with a viable way to do it. Cutting Social Security: toxic, particularly among the older Americans who actually show up to vote. Balancing the budget: a doctoral-level math problem requiring a series of politically devastating cuts.

“They could have gutted Obamacare, and they could have destroyed Medicare,” David Karol, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, told me. “I don’t think the welfare state survived Republican unified government because of the filibuster. It survived it because they were afraid. Even when they had the votes to repeal the ACA, it wasn’t gonna happen because enough of them were terrified of doing it.”

The GOP might not have a broad, forward-looking, unifying agenda. But that does not mean it is a Do-Nothing Party, either. Republicans remain engaged on immigration, trade, taxes, and business regulation. They have found enormous success in manipulating the regulatory state, and stacking the judiciary.

Arguably, the party is simply meeting its voters where they are. Over the past four decades, the GOP electorate has become older, whiter, more rural, more Christian, and more male than the electorate as a whole, remaining richer than it too. The party has pivoted and pushed right according to the preferences of the homogenous people in that shrinking tent.

The plutocrats and the business owners who make up the Republican donor class want tax cuts and a rollback of regulatory rules, and that is what they got under Trump. “The groups lobbying the Republican Party, like the NRA, basically want to preserve the status quo,” said Karol. “The businesspeople care about taxes and deregulation—that stuff is quiet, under the radar, through the NLRB and OSHA and others. After the tax cuts, they don’t need legislation.”

For the many Republicans who don’t benefit much from tax cuts, and never received the promised populist policies, identity politics and racial resentment are strong enough forces to tie them to the party. A study by the political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Jennifer McCoy, for instance, showed that Trump’s dog-whistling worked. In 2000, George W. Bush won two in three working-class white voters who evince considerable racial resentment, measured by asking them whether or not they agree with statements such as “If Blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.” Trump got nine in 10 of them.

Trump electrifies the party’s broader base with revanchism, nativism, and white nationalism, catering to the anxieties of a historically hyper-dominant group fast becoming a minority. Just take a look at who is speaking at the GOP convention to see what red meat looks like for red America: the couple who brandished guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in St. Louis and Nick Sandmann of Covington Catholic High School, whose interaction with the Native American activist Nathan Phillips in front of the Lincoln Memorial went viral in 2019. Or, in the absence of a national 2020 manifesto, take a look at the Texas platform: Delegates picked top priorities including banning gender-confirmation procedures, protecting monuments, purging the voter rolls, and preventing teenagers from getting abortions or obtaining birth control without parental consent, all potent fronts in the culture war. “Policy doesn’t matter much” to winnable conservative voters, Brent Buchanan, a Republican pollster, told me. “It’s more about personalities and principles.”

On the principles front, the party has secured sweeping control of the courts, the singular obsession of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Supreme Court is now lost to progressives for a generation; it may block or impede universal-health-insurance legislation, campaign-finance laws, and climate-change legislation, among other liberal priorities. As Boehner put it shortly before Trump’s victory: “The legislative process, the political process, is at a standstill and will be regardless of who wins. The only thing that really matters over the next four years or eight years is who is going to appoint the next Supreme Court nominees.”

Viewed this way, the Republican policy portfolio is both extremely slender and extremely successful. “Don’t underestimate this in talking about Republicans: They’ve been able to stack the Supreme Court despite having won one popular vote in 30 years,” Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale and a co-author of the new book Let Them Eat Tweets, told me. “That’s pretty remarkable. That takes some chutzpah and skill. And it’s worth a lot! If the states and the Supreme Court are doing what you want, and you want to trash the executive state from the White House—you’re not doing bad. But in terms of building a popular agenda, it’s not inspiring.”

Not inspiring and perhaps not sustainable, either. Following Mitt Romney’s narrow defeat to President Obama in 2012, the GOP prepared a 100-page autopsy, examining its failure. How had one of the party’s brightest lights failed to unseat a struggling, roadblocked president presiding over the worst economy in decades? The answer: It was relying on an aging, homogenous coalition. It was winning elections on technicalities rather than taking a large share of the popular vote. And it was failing to attract young, diverse voters. The party had to change to survive. It was a moral and existential imperative, many in the GOP decided.

Trump heeded none of the warnings from that autopsy or any of the myriad other think-tank reports, voter surveys, or internal party documents coming to the same, obvious conclusion. Appealing to white voters to win elections cannot work forever in a country becoming less white: If Trump got exactly the same share of voters, sorted by racial and ethnic groups, that he got in 2016 this year, he would likely lose because of simple demographic change.

“Republicans are losing $5 on every sale and trying to make it up on volume,” Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican campaign consultant and now a prominent anti-Trumper, told me. “Just look at the country: Those who are 15 years old and younger, the majority are nonwhite. They’re going to turn 18 and remain nonwhite. That’s a death sentence for the Republican Party.”

But the guillotine has not fallen yet. Republicans continue to stare down what the Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt has described as the “conservative dilemma.” Conservative parties are preservationist, he argues. They seek to sustain an inegalitarian, hierarchical world. What happens when they need votes from outside their elite circle to win? “Any time you have a political party that perceives that it is representing a shrinking demographic, that your political party’s base is existentially threatened, it takes measures to defend or change itself,” he told me. “To ‘make America great again,’ or ‘take our country back,’ these are expressions of a sense that ‘the tide of history is moving against us.’”

Ziblatt identifies a number of strategies that parties have used over the decades to solve the conservative dilemma. They may develop a stronger political infrastructure, getting better at campaigning and getting out the vote; or they may engage in antidemocratic behaviors, such as stuffing ballot boxes or jailing opponents. They may moderate on economic terms, and win over the center; or they may whip up a culture war and stoke xenophobic sentiments, getting voters to focus on an identitarian threat.

The Republican Party has kept winning, at least for the moment, with options two and four. It has engaged in an athletic effort to shore up Republican rule: gerrymandering, manipulating the census, pushing voter-ID rules, taking away polling places, and attacking mail-in voting. The very infrastructure of the American political system, riddled with antidemocratic bodies, has helped the party resist change. The Electoral College has thrown two of the past five presidential elections to Republicans who lost the popular vote, in Trump’s case by 3 million ballots. The Supreme Court, stacked with conservative appointees, keeps batting down small-d democratic initiatives. The Senate systematically overrepresents Republicans, giving a Wyoming voter 80 times the sway of a Californian.

“What is precarious about that is, you have a declining popular majority, but you’re able to hold onto power through these kinds of counter-majoritarian institutions,” Ziblatt told me. “That generates a certain kind of panic about the world, because you realize that power is very precarious. I think it’s a dangerous combination.”

This is what ties Republican contentlessness to the threat to American democracy: The GOP is not trying to win over more voters. It just wants to win.

What would get Republicans to change, to adapt, to grow, to develop new ideas? Political scientists, polling experts, and policy wonks all said the same thing: losing. Soundly. Badly. Repeatedly.

“Parties grow in opposition,” said Norris, the Harvard political scientist. “They don’t learn when they’re in government, when they’re winning. Because they’re winning! If they have a winning strategy, they repeat the winning strategy, even when the public is moving away from them. This is a well-known tendency.” She added: “They need to ask themselves: God, what went wrong?” The Labour Party defeated again and again by Margaret Thatcher. The Tories shut out again and again by Tony Blair. The Democrats humbled by the Reagan years. The Republicans need to be humbled, too, and for some time.

The party has gotten sick and tired of winning, to borrow a phrase, and has lost its sense of purpose, at least some Republicans argue. “I don’t think a party can exist without a logical framework,” Stevens, the author of the new book It Was All a Lie, said, decrying the loss of fiscal responsibility and personal character as conservative North Stars. “Elizabeth Warren, she can articulate a coherent theory of government. You can hate it. You can love it. You can agree with some of it. But there’s no Republican equivalent with any credibility.”

With Trump’s loss a real possibility, many moderate Republicans are trying to generate that credible policy vision. The Romneys of the world are waiting for Trump to fail, child-care proposals in hand. Reformicons are pushing out ideas for family-friendly, softly redistributive policies from their think tanks. Larry Hogan, the Maryland governor, has argued that the national party is primed for a shift to the center.

But such change will prove enormously difficult for a party that has prided itself on slashing taxes, slashing regulations, and employing the administrative state to discourage use of the safety net. It will prove enormously difficult for a party whose base continues to turn out for the culture war, not for careful, bipartisan immigration proposals. It will prove enormously difficult for a party whose donor class expects continued tax cuts and deregulation, and whose portfolios rely on them.

Republican moderation won’t happen in a vacuum: Voters will still face a choice between Republicans and Democrats. As the Republican Party has thinned and narrowed and moved to the right, the Democratic Party has swelled and stretched; as the Republican Party has given up on policy, the Democratic Party has entered a period of almost ludicrous technocratic fecundity. Biden’s campaign is currently offering up 46 separate policy documents, to Trump’s zero. Its coalition spans from Democratic Socialists to neoliberal moderates, and includes both Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention. If you want some version of Romney’s health policies and Ronald Reagan’s cap-and-trade initiatives, you’re voting for a Democrat in the next election.

Moreover, moderation might not prove enough to lure back nonwhite voters derided and discouraged by the Republican Party for so long. “For us to see a Republican getting not 15 percent, but 25 percent, 30 percent, 33 percent of Black voters—in order to get that kind of change, you need something transformative,” Leah Wright Rigueur, a political scientist at Harvard, told me. “I have a hard time imagining what Donald Trump could do that would shift the polls, particularly given that Black public opinion around Donald Trump is so abysmal right now. It would have to be something like universal health care. Donald Trump would have to pass reparations.” Nor does it seem that voters are apt to forget that Republicans fell in line behind Trump, she added: Trumpism will remain with Republicanism long after Trump.

Republicans just might have the chance to figure things out, given where Trump is in the polls. Some show him losing Texas, others Georgia. Stevens described this year as a “Chernobyl moment” for the GOP, and said he suspects we’re in for a “long spell” of center-left government. In that Hannity-moderated town hall, even Trump did not sound sure that he was headed for anything but electoral defeat, though he has more recently argued that any election he does not win will be illegitimate.

“The man can’t speak,” Trump said of Biden. “He’s going to be your president because some people don’t love me. Maybe.”