Polls, focus groups, and strategic thinking by smart people can all be useful tools in charting a political party’s course. But there’s nothing like actual elections to provide crucial feedback, particularly for the party in charge of everything in Washington. So you would think November 7’s very bad results for the Republican Party might provide a teachable moment, and persuade GOP leaders to think twice about implementing their not-very-popular agenda. But instead, for a variety of reasons, most leading Republicans are treating their poor public standing as a reason to more urgently press that agenda.
House Speaker Paul Ryan set the tone by claiming that the off-year election “just puts more pressure on making sure we follow through” with tax cuts, and “keep our promises.” This echoes the year-long conservative claim that Republicans are betraying the base and their principles if they don’t keep returning to the poisoned well to repeal Obamacare.
Interpreting Democratic victories as providing a mandate for Republican policies is a sign that the GOP is a party whose leaders don’t want to listen to feedback at all beyond the ranks of hungry donors and angry ideologues. So far the tax-cut package (and particularly its central feature, the big corporate tax-rate reduction) has anemic support, despite being described relentlessly by its sponsors as an incredibly tasty, sugar-free, no-carb dessert.
The bill is only going to get more unpopular as the various interests the bill hurts pound it relentlessly in the days ahead. Obamacare became more popular the more Republicans tried to repeal it. The president’s approval ratings are stubbornly very low despite the good economic news for which he keeps taking credit. And now there are the 2017 election results, which cannot be spun as anything other than a bad sign for Republicans, and a strong indicator that a Democratic wave election could be forming for 2018.
The danger indicators on the console are blinking red, but the people driving the GOP seem determined to ignore them.
There are certainly multiple reasons for this willful refusal to change course.
Sheer inertia is one factor. The GOP legislative agenda was set before Donald Trump even took office, and the failure to deal with health care, cut spending, or stay on schedule has naturally intensified the determination of Republican leaders to get something done by the end of this incredibly disappointing year. Pausing for reflection at this point is the last thing Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell want to do.
In addition, the tax bill is very important to GOP donors, who are already furious at their hirelings for their legislative incompetence. The more Republicans pay attention to the demands of donors that they defy public opinion, the more they need those donors to finance campaigns that swim upstream against public opinion: It’s truly a vicious circle.
The demands of the base matter, too, particularly given the possibility of right-wing primary challenges to members of Congress who are too accommodating to mainstream public opinion. It is often forgotten that the vast majority of Republicans in both chambers of Congress are personally invulnerable to the general elections that could destroy their majorities and their power.
Blind ideology drives some of them as well. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing something politically dangerous as a matter of principle. Republicans, after all, tend to think tax and spending cuts are the answer to every problem facing the nation, in good times and bad. And that is why they often think tax and spending cuts are what the people really want and need, no matter what they say.
That can lead to some really delusional thinking. Here’s an example: Maine voters approved a referendum by a landslide 59/41 margin to force their state to accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid-expansion option, which atavistic GOP governor Paul LePage has repeatedly blocked. Some congressional Republicans are viewing that as a sign they should keep trying to repeal the Obamacare law that made the expansion possible. As Talking Points Memo reports:
Despite polls showing that more Americans approve of Obamacare than at any time since its implementation, and the vast majority disapprove of Republican bills to repeal it, GOP members said the message they got from Tuesday’s elections was that their failure to deliver “results” is what is hurting Republicans, not their repeated attempts to gut the ACA.
And how about that Maine vote?
Asked about Maine’s resounding endorsement of Medicaid expansion, [Rep. Mario] Diaz Balart insisted that voters aren’t concerned with health care policy specifics.
“They don’t care whether it’s Medicaid expansion or whatever. That’s Washington talk,” he said. “When I go home people don’t tell me specifics about a bill, they tell me to solve problems. People want a health care system that works for them, and if Republicans don’t have answers, they’re going to seek other answers.”
Keep in mind that the Medicaid expansion has been debated incessantly in Maine for years; that’s why the expansion referendum was on the ballot. We are supposed to believe that the voters who supported that measure didn’t know what they were voting for, and might have been just as happy with a GOP health plan.
Under this construction of events, Republicans can interpret any bad news from the electoral front as good news for what they want to do anyway.
Meanwhile, at the White House, the prevailing sentiment is that if Republican candidates had spent most of their time singing hymns of praise to Donald J. Trump, Tuesday’s bloodbath would not have occurred.
So the two most common lessons Republicans are taking away from November 7 is that they need to double down on Trump, or double down on Trump’s agenda. Electoral “signals” may be wasted on these people, unless a really big wave crashes down on them in the midterm elections a year from now and sweeps Paul Ryan’s gavel right out of his hand.