It’s been quite the year — painful for some, profitable for others — but the one group that should be raising a toast to closing out a successful 2017 are America’s conservatives.
Or should they?
Since January 20, Republicans have controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House (a phenomenon last enjoyed by the GOP from 2003-2007, and prior to that, from 1953-1955 and 1921-1931). With their hands on all the levers of power, this was to be the great opportunity to scale back the size and scope of government and to reform bloated federal programs.
Surprisingly, however, very little has actually been accomplished. Despite the sturm und drang, the Affordable Care Act has yet to — and, frankly, is unlikely to ever — be fully repealed. Republican candidates lost a number of high-profile races this year, most notably the Alabama special election for the Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but also the governors’ mansions in New Jersey and Virginia. Six months ago, the conventional wisdom was that the 2018 midterm elections would be a cakewalk for Republicans; now, things are much more in question.
True, the much-vaunted tax reform package passed, but adding $1 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years is a hard pill for many fiscal conservatives to swallow (or it should be). Once upon a time, the GOP was the party of fiscal responsibility, but those days seem to be long gone.
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But even their one much-heralded legislative accomplishment isn't enough to overcome the Republicans’ real problem: Their brand may be irreparably damaged after the past 12 months under our 45th president. Yes, the levers are under our control, but at a frightful cost.
It’s become increasingly difficult, in the wake of Donald Trump's election, to identify for what Republicans stand. The deficit-busting tax bill means it's not fiscal responsibility; if Trump’s tweets about North Korea are any indication, avoiding foreign entanglements also appears to be off the table. And why drain the swamp, when it’s so much easier to fly above it in taxpayer-funded planes and helicopters?
Cracks had formed on the right over then-candidate Donald Trump even before last November; Bill Buckley’s establishment magazine "National Review" produced an “Against Trump” issue, featuring essays from prominent conservatives such as Glenn Beck, Erick Erickson, Ed Meese and Bill Kristol. And even after November 8, the right never perfectly coalesced around President Trump in the way that they had for previous commanders-in-chief: Pockets of quiet resistance remain, albeit more muted than the #NeverTrump signatories were in their heyday.
Some on the right have comforted themselves with the knowledge that Trump is actively seeking to remake the federal judiciary; in November, the Federalist Society hosted their National Lawyers Convention, and one attendee from the R Street Institute — a Beltway conservative organization — passed out stress balls that said “But Gorsuch” on them. They were intended to be ironic but, in retrospect, it was perhaps a more incisive commentary on the state of the party than anyone appreciated at the time.
A March 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found that Millennials (18-35) and Gen X (36-51) lean more to the left than Baby Boomers (52-70) or the Silent Generation (71-88). Consider, too, that the country has slowly but surely been growing more diverse — a trend which also has party affiliation implications. This data isn’t surprising in and of itself, but overlaid with the fact that turnout from younger voters is beginning to eclipse that of older voters and that African-American turnout was a deciding factor in Roy Moore’s defeat, suddenly things don’t look good for the GOP in the long term.
To be fair, these are statistics that Hillary Clinton’s campaign assumed would win her the presidency — which they didn’t — but they should still give GOP strategists pause, particularly when the commander-in-chief seems intent on alienating these groups with his various tweets, public statements, and other barbs thrown at his opponents du jour. Of course, there are also policies, like ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the Muslim travel ban, that explicitly impact the very constituencies that the GOP is and should be desperately trying to attract. (The Republican National Committee’s minority outreach team has one of the more challenging assignments in Washington these days.)
Looking to 2018 and beyond, then, the $64,000 question is: Can the party be saved? Can Republicans reclaim its mantle as the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, or is it past the point of no return? Some pundits have split hairs, noting that, while President Trump may be a Republican, he is no conservative. That may be true, but it’s questionable whether distancing themselves from their party’s chief executive is a sufficiently inspiring long-term strategy — after all, that didn’t work out for not-governor Ed Gillespie in Virginia.
If the GOP is to survive in its current incarnation, it must restore its tarnished image by identifying its core values, and ensuring that all policy priorities clearly flow from them. It’s one thing to say “less government intervention in the economy,” but it’s another thing to actually act on that promise with the knowledge that the campaign contributions will stop flowing. Don’t just put your friends in charge of crony programs like the Export-Import Bank; close them down altogether. Don’t just preach the gospel of entrepreneurship when you can stop throwing up roadblocks to innovation, and begin dismantling the occupational licensure apparatus put in place by trade associations and lobbyists. And if the dignity of the individual truly is paramount, then treat others with respect — not just the ones with access to the White House Rose Garden.
A few members of Congress are sending the right signals: Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., have shown that they value principle over party by bucking leadership over issues like surveillance and spending. Let’s hope that their struggle is not in vain, and that their colleagues in the Capitol recommit to upholding to the constitution in the new year.
Nicole Neily is the former president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.