The Republican Party knows that it won’t win many elections by campaigning on its governing agenda. After winning unified control of the federal government in 2016, the GOP Congress prioritized two legislative goals: slashing federal health-care spending by roughly $1 trillion, and cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations by even more than that.
But one would hardly know that from the GOP’s paid messaging in 2018. In their campaign ads, Republican candidates are avoiding all mention of their party’s attempts to gut Medicaid and repeal the Affordable Care Act — while giving short shrift to Donald Trump’s signature tax cuts. As of May, only one-third of the ads arguing that Republicans should retain control of Congress mentioned the cut, the only major legislation that the current Republican Congress has passed. Instead, the GOP has opted to campaign against “open borders” (which no Democratic elected official supports), for loyalty to Donald Trump, and, above all, in opposition to Nancy Pelosi — and the godless urbanism, rootless cosmopolitanism, and crytpo-communist femi-nazism she (apparently) represents.
Troy Balderson, the Republican candidate in next week’s special congressional election in Ohio, abandoned talk of the tax cuts weeks ago. While his rival, Democrat Danny O’Connor, has savaged the GOP’s “corporate tax giveaway,” Balderson and his allies have tried to keep Buckeye voters focused on what really matters: how scary nonwhite immigrants are.
“I’ll end sanctuary cities to stop illegals from taking our jobs … and use conservative grit to build the darn wall,” Balderson said in one recent ad. Meanwhile, the Paul Ryan–aligned Congressional Leadership Fund PAC has informed Ohioans that O’Connor wants to open “America’s doors to more crime and drugs.”
But these appeals to white racial panic aren’t doing the trick. Weeks ago, internal GOP polls (reportedly) showed the Republican leading O’Connor by double digits; now, they show O’Connor at Balderson’s heels. And a Monmouth University poll released this week found the two candidates in a statistical tie. That’s alarming for all Republicans — the party has held Ohio’s 12 congressional district for 35 years. If they can’t win areas like this, they can’t keep the House.
So, in the race’s final days, Paul Ryan’s super-PAC has provided Balderson with a new message. Instead of merely papering over the GOP’s fiscal priorities, the Congressional Leadership Fund has opted to lie baldly about what those policies are. Its closing argument is, in essence: Don’t vote for Danny O’Connor because if Democrats control the House, they will elect a Speaker who supports cutting Medicare.
After showing a clip of O’Connor appearing to tell MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that he’d be open to supporting Nancy Pelosi for Speaker, a voice-over warns, “Dishonest Danny lied about Pelosi. Now he’s lying about Social Security and Medicare. O’Connor supports a Pelosi-backed plan that cuts Medicare spending by eight hundred billion.”
That “plan” is Obamacare, which modestly reduced Medicare reimbursement rates to hospitals and insurers, while doing nothing to reduce benefits for seniors. Nancy Pelosi vociferously opposes cuts to such benefits in the future. The current Republican Speaker of the House, by contrast, has been calling for steep cuts to Medicare benefits for more than a decade — and said, just last December, that his party is “going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit … it’s the health-care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on the health-care entitlements.”
Balderson, for his part, has expressed openness to raising the retirement age for Social Security.
There is nothing unusual about Republicans campaigning on policies that are diametrically opposed to those that they intend to implement upon winning power. As Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan decried Obamacare’s nonexistent cuts to Medicare benefits, even as his own budget proposed draconian reductions in Medicare spending. Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency on promises to replace Obamacare with a health-care plan that would “take care of everybody,” oppose any and all cuts to Medicaid, and raise taxes on hedge-fund managers. Once in office, Trump and his party tried to do the opposite — but never stopped lying about their intentions. Last September, Trump vowed that his tax plan would not benefit the wealthy, while Mitch McConnell suggested that his health-care bill would help the “25 million Americans who aren’t covered now.”
In recent years, the GOP has launched many attacks on the formal mechanisms of democracy, by attempting to suppress the votes of Democratic consitutencies through voter-ID laws, felon disenfranchisement, and racially discriminatory restrictions to early voting. But the party’s hostility to the substance of democracy — and its manifest contempt for its own voters — is just as significant a threat to self-government in the United States.
Democratic politicians certainly break campaign promises, and try to divert public attention from the more unpopular aspects of their agenda. But the party does generally run on the policies it intends to make its governing priorities — and is at least directionally honest about what those policies are. (Barack Obama did not campaign on promises to reduce federal health-care spending and lower taxes on the superrich.)
What the Republican Party has been doing — running on one set of fiscal policies, and then attempting to implement the precise opposite once in power (typically, by rushing donor-approved bills through Congress without extended hearings or debate) — should not be a source of outrage merely for Democrats. News outlets that claim a commitment to objectivity and democracy must not propagate the fiction that the GOP is a normal political party, which earnestly represents the interests of (nearly) half the country; because, if America’s governing political party pays no price for serially misleading voters about what it has done — and intends to do — with political power, then objective truth and popular sovereignty will have no meaningful place in American politics.