A big part of the most popular narrative about what’s happening in Washington this year is that Republicans are in increasingly dire danger of alienating their base by failing to accomplish various legislative goals. This was supposedly the main reason Republicans spent so much time and passion on the failed drive to repeal and replace Obamacare (though as my colleague Eric Levitz pointed out, grassroots GOP support for the various “replacement” bills was never very strong). And it’s allegedly why the possibility of going 0-for-2017 in major legislation terrifies Republicans looking ahead to the 2018 midterms.
This hypothesis makes some sense, obviously. Midterm turnout is significantly lower than in presidential elections. Accordingly, “base voter” discouragement over the competence and ideological fidelity of Republican elected representatives could at the very least reduce the GOP’s usual midterm turnout advantage.
But there are four key reasons GOP “base” voters might stay in line even if Congress fails to get much done between now and November 2018:
1) Conservatives are inherently happier with gridlock than are liberals. The standard conservative message since 2008 has been that secular-socialists are rapidly and consciously transforming America into an alien land. To a not-insubstantial number of base activists, 2016 was the “Flight 93 Election,” a moment when the country might be irreversibly passing a tipping point toward political, economic, and cultural ruin. Yes, the failure of Republicans to reverse past Democratic policy accomplishments might make activists angry and frustrated. But they might be satisfied with a period of stasis that interrupts a long, frightening slide into leftist tyranny, particularly if the alternative is to empower congressional Democrats.
2) Conservative “base” voters and activists are not united among themselves on some key elements of the GOP agenda. Aside from the tepid support for Trumpcare among rank-and-file Republicans noted above, there’s also some question about how many base voters strongly support the domestic spending cuts the House Freedom Caucus wants to
attach to debt-limit and appropriations legislation. To the extent that they affect middle-class entitlements like Medicare — and to some extent Medicaid affects middle-class families as well — failing to pursue these cuts to the ends of the earth may not be a deal-breaker for that many actual voters. And there could be limited enthusiasm in the GOP for corporate tax cuts, which means less fury if they are not actually enacted.
3) Much of today’s partisan voting is tribal rather than issues-oriented, which makes it far more durable. The woman who literally wrote the book on partisan polarization, Frances Lee, reminds us that “Party identification is bigger than anything the party does … It more or less boils down to how you see the conflicts in American society, and which groups you see as representing you.” And the sorts of things a Republican Congress could do that might shake that identification, such as a very broad amnesty measure for undocumented Americans, aren’t happening any time soon. The Republican base isn’t going to sit on their hands in an election framed as the triumph of the “resistance” to Donald Trump.
4) Many “base” activists are playing a long game in which Trump and the GOP have not yet fatally disappointed them. It is reasonably well understood that Trump’s very specific promises on the process he’d use to choose Supreme Court nominees, and his redemption of
those promises in the nomination and confirmation of Justice Gorsuch, has been a really big deal in motivating and sustaining conservative support for the present GOP regime — especially among white Evangelicals. For the millions of voters and activists in the right-to-life movement, Gorsuch was just the appetizer: the main course will be represented by the next Supreme Court nominee, if he or she replaces one of the Court’s pro-choice justices.
This requires keeping a Republican Senate majority and a Republican president in place until the mission is accomplished. No degree of disappointment over Obamacare or the budget or taxes is going to change that. For some Republicans who are especially in tune with the president, he represents an even bigger and broader long-term commitment. Stephen
Bannon articulated it last week:
“The permanent political class, as represented by both parties … you’re not going to drain that in eight months,” Bannon said during an interview with CBS News anchor Charlie Rose for 60 Minutes. “You’re not going to drain it in two terms. This is going to take ten, 15, 20 years of relentlessly going after it.”
That kind of determination should at least last for another 14 months, no matter how little the GOP gets done.