Do populist Republicans want a federal government where politicians stand on principle and refuse to compromise? Or do they want a pragmatist to make fabulous deals?
The intra-Republican conflict highlighted by last week’s failure to repeal or replace Obamacare is usefully understood as a consequence of confusion on those questions. Elected officials associated with the Tea Party, or the House Freedom Caucus, believe that they were sent to Washington, D.C., to replace sell-outs who compromised themselves by seeking earmarks for their constituents, buckling to establishment whips, or horse-trading with the Democrats.
Yet many populist entertainers, like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, who fancied themselves champions of the Tea Party’s no-compromise ethos, morphed, during Election 2016, into cheerleaders for a different kind of populist—Donald Trump—who pointedly declared that he was seeking the nomination of the Republican Party, not the conservative party, and regularly boasted during the campaign that he should be elected in large part because of his prowess as a dealmaker. Forget principle—the art of the deal was the way to make America great again.
The contradiction was lost on many populist Republicans, who’ve been trained for years to use antagonism to President Obama and the media as a heuristic for judging loyalty––having “the right enemies” became a substitute for a positive agenda. Now that Obama is gone, and Republicans are totally in charge of governing, the party is discovering the inevitable tension that ensues when the populist wing of a political coalition elevates legislators chosen for their aversion to compromise, and then a president who intends to succeed via successful negotiating.