the republican party

Is the GOP’s Policy Agenda Hidden or Nonexistent?

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The GOP’s prospects for reclaiming full federal power in 2025 are bright and getting brighter.

Already, the party has all but clinched a House majority in the next Congress. Even as Democrats won a federal trifecta in 2020, they failed to put a dent in the Republicans’ domination of state governments. As a result, the GOP has more power over this year’s once-in-a-decade redistricting — and Republicans have used it to engineer enough new “solid red” districts to win a House majority next November, even if Democrats retain the same level of support they had on the night of Biden’s election.

And Democrats will not be retaining that level of support. Or at least, doing so will require a nigh-unprecedented change of political fortune. At present, Republicans boast a narrow lead in the congressional generic ballot (the poll of which party Americans plan to vote for in next year’s House elections). Historically, the opposition party tends to gain support as the midterms draw closer, not lose it.

The GOP’s structural advantage in the Senate is even larger than its handicap in the House. Congress’s upper chamber wildly underrepresents urban America. In an age of urban-rural polarization — and very little ticket-splitting — the Senate’s biases are devastating for the Democratic Party. According to the political data scientist David Shor, if Democrats win 51 percent of the major-party vote in 2024, they will likely lose seven Senate seatsand the presidency, thanks to the Electoral College’s four-point Republican bias.

Given current polling, Democrats would be lucky to win 51 percent of the major-party vote three years from now. Joe Biden’s approval rating currently sits at about 43 percent. Recent polls of a hypothetical “Donald Trump versus Joe Biden” rematch election have shown the Republican with a small national lead.

Thus there is a very good chance that Republicans will not only control the presidency, House, and Senate in 2025 but also that the party will enjoy much larger congressional majorities than they did during Trump’s term.

And it’s weirdly difficult to say what Republicans would actually do with all that power.

During the Obama years, the GOP’s official policy vision wasn’t difficult to discern. Paul Ryan’s budgets and the tea party’s rhetoric affirmed the Republicans’ commitment to slashing both taxes and social spending. And once the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, “Obamacare repeal” became a party-uniting policy demand.

But Donald Trump’s success in campaigning as a defender of Medicare and Social Security, and as a proponent of little beyond tax cuts and cruelty, tempered the GOP’s enthusiasm for austerity. The failure of Obamacare repeal, and subsequent midterm loss, further chastened Republican advocates of “small government.” At the same time, Trump’s tax cuts largely fulfilled the GOP’s core policy ambition. Republicans could certainly cut federal taxes by even more. But merely extending the Trump Tax Cuts (many of which are currently scheduled to phase out mid-decade) would require a sizable deficit increase or offsetting spending cut. By all appearances, the party did not feel that it had enough fiscal space to enact another major tax cut in 2020: The GOP declined to draft a policy platform of any kind last year. And whenever the Republican standard-bearer was asked what policies he intended to enact upon reelection, the back-and-forth went something like this:

Since last year’s election, the GOP’s messaging has focused on causes that are either devoid of policy substance or purely reactive. Republicans spent much of this year railing against “cancel culture,” years-old New York Times Magazine articles, and attacks on Mr. Potato Head’s masculinity. However serious one takes these matters to be, they have only a peripheral relationship to questions of public policy.

At the state level, GOP lawmakers have pushed a common policy agenda. But this agenda has consisted primarily of procedural reforms to election administration (i.e., making it harder to vote and easier for Republicans to subvert elections) and COVID-specific regulatory policies (e.g., banning mask mandates).

In D.C., meanwhile, to the extent that Republicans have made concerted policy appeals, these have been mere ad hoc reactions to the news cycle. When “critical race theory in schools” became the conservative media’s fixation du jour, Republicans cobbled together a “Parents Bill of Rights” comprised of largely anodyne disclosure requirements (“School districts must post curriculum publicly”) and innocuous prohibitions (“Schools must not sell student data for commercial purposes”). As a rise in gas prices came to dominate headlines, Republicans have redoubled their advocacy for the Keystone XL pipeline.

The party’s affirmative reform agenda, however, has remained unclear. Trump’s party is obviously concerned about immigration. But it hasn’t mustered any signature plan for remaking the immigration system. This is in part because the GOP remains internally divided on legal immigration. With a labor shortage plaguing many industries — agriculture has been especially hard hit — many GOP-aligned business interests are more hostile to cutting legal inflows than they were when Senate Republicans voted down Trump’s plan for doing so. Thus the GOP’s actual substantive ambitions on Trump’s signature issue appear to be quite modest: The party wants to hire more Border agents, build more walls, and make life a little harder for asylum seekers while leaving the bulk of the status quo immigration system in place.

As Biden’s Build Back Better agenda moves toward passage, the GOP has been lambasting “out of control” spending. But the party leadership has been much cagier about how, precisely, it wishes to slash the federal budget than it was in the Obama years. During his marathon floor speech denouncing the Democrats’ reconciliation bill, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy framed his opposition to new social-welfare programs as a defense of Medicare and Social Security. Other Republicans have (disingenuously) attacked Build Back Better from the left, arguing that the bill does too much for affluent families and too little for working-class ones.

And yet a few steps beyond the spotlight, House conservatives have been preparing an unabashed austerity agenda. In May, the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a conservative caucus that claims roughly 75 percent of all House Republicans as members, released a plan for shaving $14 trillion off the federal budget over the coming decade. The RSC’s proposal would cut Medicare by $2.5 trillion, Medicaid and other federal health programs by $3.3 trillion, and various additional social-safety-net programs by $3.5 trillion.

It is hard to say with confidence which of these postures is more of a pose. Are House conservatives performing ideological purity for their base, knowing full well that their party lacks the courage of their anti-welfare convictions? Or is the GOP leadership feigning moderation while quietly plotting the future dismantling of the safety net?

Trump’s failure to roll back Obamacare would favor the former interpretation. After all, as far as welfare retrenchment goes, the Affordable Care Act was low-hanging fruit. It was the newest and least popular major wing of the American welfare state. And Republicans didn’t even come close to gutting it (“skinny repeal” failed in the Senate by a single-vote margin, but full repeal went nowhere). If the GOP couldn’t meaningfully shrink the ACA, how is it going to lop trillions off Medicare?

On the other hand, a GOP trifecta that boasted a large Senate majority might govern quite differently than the 2017 one did. In a world where Mitch McConnell can pass controversial conservative legislation, while allowing his caucus’s seven most vulnerable members to all vote “no,” might conservative elites finally fulfill their government-shrinking fantasies? Given that this hypothetical GOP Senate majority would also be (1) insulated from popular rebuke by large structural advantages and (2) aware of that fact, the possibility that Republicans would put ideology above political expediency can’t be wholly dismissed. For this reason, one can also imagine McConnell sanctioning filibuster abolition (if Republicans have fewer than 60 votes) so as to abet the passage of federal voting restrictions, abortion bans, or various other longtime conservative objectives that have heretofore proved too unpopular to implement.

Alternatively, it’s plausible that the GOP would be content to outsource its agenda’s least-popular items to allies in the judiciary and regulatory agencies, while its elected officials content themselves with unwinding Biden-era tax hikes, allowing Build Back Better’s temporary safety-net programs to expire, and fomenting culture wars.

In any case, the GOP’s decision to keep its reform agenda ambiguous (if not nonexistent) is paying off. Free from the burden of forthrightly defending right-wing fiscal priorities, Republicans have managed to function as a generic political alternative for swing voters discontented with inflation and the COVID pandemic.

Democrats should probably be doing more to undermine this strategic ambiguity. If a supermajority of House Democrats had signed onto a policy proposal as politically toxic as Medicare cuts, conservatives wouldn’t allow Nancy Pelosi to avoid taking a public stance on the subject. So Democrats should call on Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell to level with the American people: Do they disavow the Republican Study Committee’s budget proposal, or do they believe that the next GOP government should at least consider slashing Medicare and Medicaid by trillions of dollars? Does the Republican Party have no major legislative goals whatsoever or just none that its members wish to discuss in public?

Is the GOP’s Policy Agenda Hidden or Nonexistent?