The Republican Party’s marquee legislative initiative had just imploded in spectacular, and humiliating, fashion Friday afternoon when Paul Ryan stepped up to a podium on Capitol Hill. The beleaguered house speaker wasted no time in diagnosing the failure of his caucus. “Moving from an opposition party to a governing party comes with some growing pains,” he said. “And, well, we’re feeling those growing pains today.”
Ryan wasn’t wrong. The GOP’s inability to maneuver a health-care bill through the House this week—after seven years of promising to repeal and replace Obamacare—is, indeed, emblematic of a deeper dysfunction that grips his party. But that dysfunction may not be as easy to cure as Ryan and other GOP leaders believe.
That’s because it has been nearly a decade since Washington Republicans were in the business of actual governance. Whether you view their actions as a dystopian descent into cynical obstructionism or a heroic crusade against a left-wing menace, the GOP spent the Obama years defining itself—deliberately, and thoroughly—in opposition to the last president. Rather than engage the Obama White House in a more traditional legislative process—trading favors, making deals, seeking out areas where their interests align—conservatives in Congress opted to boycott the bargaining table altogether. Meanwhile, they busied themselves with a high-minded (and largely theoretical) intra-party debate about what 21st-century conservatism should stand for. They spent their time dealing in abstract ideas, articulating lofty principles, reciting memorized quotes from the Founding Fathers.
In many ways, the strategy paid off: Republicans took back Congress, slowed the progress of an agenda they genuinely opposed, and ultimately seized control of the White House. But it also came at a cost for the GOP—their lawmakers forgot how to make laws.
Indeed, without any real expectation of their bills actually being enacted, the legislative process mutated into a platform for point-scoring, attention-getting, and brand-building.
At its most benign, this dynamic manifested itself in performative filibusters and symbolic votes that had no meaningful effect beyond raising a senator’s profile or appeasing the cable news-watching constituents back home. Texas Rep. Joe Barton admitted as much Friday when reporters asked him why Republicans were refusing to repeal Obamacare now after having voted so many times in the past to do so. “Sometimes you’re playing Fantasy Football and sometimes you’re in the real game,” Barton said. “We knew [Obama], if we could get a repeal bill to his desk, would almost certainly veto it. This time we knew if it got to the president’s desk it would be signed.”
Of course, this lack of legislative seriousness has also created toxic moments over the years, as presidential wannabes and aspiring Fox News hosts manufactured congressional crises—from the debt ceiling, to the fiscal cliff, to the government shutdown—that ended up costing millions and wreaking havoc on global markets. But one of the most damaging consequences for the Republican Party today may be its noticeable dearth of D.C. dealmakers and operators—that loathed breed of elected officials who know how to work the levers of government to get things done.
Paul Ryan’s ascent to House Speaker is illustrative. His fans on both sides of the aisle have long described him as a savvy policymaker. “He is, arguably, the most skilled policy entrepreneur of his generation,” Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote last week. “He is known for winning support from political actors and policy validators who normally reject his brand of conservatism.” But there is a difference between a “policy entrepreneur” and a “legislator.” The former deals in theories and spreadsheets and white papers and Powerpoint presentations; the latter deals in real-life political power. And while Ryan can be credited (or blamed) for popularizing a certain strain of conservative fiscal policy within his party, his record of translating those ideas into law is quite modest.
In that way, Ryan is prototypical of today’s Republican congressman. To the extent that the mythical backroom wheeler-dealer types ever truly existed, they have been largely purged by the purifying flames of ideological orthodoxy. Those who remain adhere to an incentive structure that would be all but unrecognizable to a lawmaker who left town a decade ago.
The democratization of media has made it so that D.C. Republicans are just as likely to pander to Sean Hannity as they are to their local newspaper editorial boards. And the deregulation of political money has enabled cash-flush outside groups with narrowly tailored agendas to strip party committees and old-guard gatekeepers of their power and relevance. The result is a caucus full of conservatives with excellent ratings from the Heritage Foundation, and no idea how to whip a vote.
President Trump made headlines last month when he mused that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” The GOP’s health-care bill may be dead, but the truth is that governing is only likely to get harder from here on out.