Why can’t we have nice things?
That’s the question, if not exactly the phrasing, so many conservatives are asking these days.
Despite controlling the White House and both branches of Congress, the GOP can’t get much done. Oh, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have talking points pushing back on this widespread impression. Ryan’s argument has some merit: The House has passed a good deal of legislation — 305 bills, according to GovTrack.us. Admittedly, a lot of it is minor, but there’s some meaty stuff as well, including Obamacare repeal-and-replace.
The problem is that very little of it can get through the narrowly Republican-controlled Senate, the burial ground where the GOP elephant goes to die.
Much of the blame goes to McConnell, particularly when the blame is being cast by President Trump’s biggest supporters. Whether that’s fair is the subject of much debate. While McConnell has made his share of mistakes, the scapegoating is often wildly overblown.
As Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) recently explained on my new podcast, The Remnant, the GOP simply is not an ideologically unified party. There is not one GOP but several. In a sense, that’s always been true of Republicans — and Democrats.
Political parties always have different ideological and regional factions. The late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone used to claim he was from “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” by which he meant he was an authentic progressive. FDR’s coalition included progressive and socialist Jews and African-Americans as well as segregationist Democrats and progressive Republicans. Ronald Reagan unified movement conservatives and traditional East Coast Republicans as well as big swaths of conservative Democrats and even a few libertarians.
Part of the problem is that we don’t think of parties as coalitions of disparate ideological and geographic interests anymore. For much of American history, if you asked someone whether they were a Republican or Democrat, you’d have to ask a follow-up question to learn whether they were a liberal or conservative, never mind what kind of liberal or conservative they were.
Thanks to the trend of political polarization, we now expect ideological conformity to go hand in hand with party identification. And it does more than ever. For the first time in American history, party ID is more predictive of behaviors and attitudes than race, according to political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood (of Dartmouth and Stanford, respectively).
“Partisanship, for a long period of time, wasn’t viewed as part of who we are,” Westwood told The New York Times earlier this year. “It wasn’t core to our identity. It was just an ancillary trait. But in the modern era we view party identity as something akin to gender, ethnicity or race — the core traits that we use to describe ourselves to others.”
So from one perspective, dysfunction in Congress is a good sign because it shows that partisanship doesn’t override all other concerns. But that’s cold comfort for Republicans, who’d like to fulfill the promises they campaigned on for years now that they “control” Washington.
But control requires consensus. The simple fact is that Republicans disagree — for good reasons and bad — on how to reform the tax code, fix health care and deal with immigration. In a Senate where Democrats are unified by nothing save their Trump hatred and where Republicans have only a two-seat majority, it’s virtually impossible to get agreement on any significant legislation, even under the arcane rules of reconciliation (which requires 51 votes instead of the 60 votes usually needed to override filibusters).
But because we see things through a partisan-tribal lens, dissent from the party line or the Trump “agenda” is cast as betrayal, particularly by the loud rump faction represented by people such as ousted White House adviser Steve Bannon. To listen to the Bannonistas, McConnell’s failure to deliver the votes for Obamacare repeal — or, soon, tax reform — is a personal betrayal of Trump. Never mind that the U.S. Senate isn’t the British Parliament, and the majority leader has little to no power to force 52 independently elected senators to do anything. Also, no Senate majority leader can compensate for a president unwilling or unable to unify the party.
Bannon, a self-described “nationalist” who detests traditional conservatism and “the establishment,” is trying to turn McConnell into a boogeyman so that nationalist congressional challengers can topple Republican incumbents in primaries and advance Bannon’s (if not necessarily Trump’s) agenda.
I think that effort will fail. But even it were successful, it would only perpetuate the dysfunction, because that agenda doesn’t unify the party.
Nice things aren’t on the horizon.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.