Happy Donald Trump and Sad Bernie Sanders (Credit: Getty/Justin Merriman/Win McNamee)
The nomination of Donald Trump occasioned many premature obituaries of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. His election led to more predictions of imminent realignment around a new populist agenda.
But the first year of Trump’s presidency in Congress has brought Republican orthodoxy: major tax cuts and another failed push to repeal Obamacare. Trump also appointed a highly conservative cabinet and his administration is dutifully pursuing across-the-board deregulation. He has appointed strongly conservative judges and they are shifting the courts rightward. Anti-Trump Republicans, while remaining justifiably concerned with the decay of democratic norms, are now noticing that Trump has pursued traditional conservative policy.
As to public opinion, Republicans are now facing a larger than normal thermostatic backlash in response to the most conservative administration in memory as well as Trump’s personal unpopularity. These same factors are making Democrats more energized. Republicans’ special election performance reflects this public shift, as do their dimming 2018 electoral prospects.
Trump’s first year thus accelerated the normal partisan pendulum and the nation’s polarizing trends without fundamentally transforming or undermining the Republican Party. Republicans pursued the same fiscal and regulatory policies, the same social issue agenda, and roughly the same international agenda that they would have pursued with another Republican president. This represents a rightward move because they have historically paired conservative policy with at least a few liberal initiatives, such as in education and healthcare under George W. Bush.
Republicans in 2017 also displayed the same internal ideological conflicts that have long plagued the party. But like followers of the Religious Right and the Tea Party before them, Trump aficionados have melded into the broader Republican Right. In primary elections, Republicans are returning to the 2010 and 2012 pattern of right-wing challengers that can undermine general election prospects (largely avoided in 2014 and 2016). But in Congress, Paul Ryan has been better than John Boehner at keeping his caucus together and Senate Republicans have successfully united around rules to work around the filibuster.
The party is facing its traditional challenges, not a new existential crisis. Before the election, I predicted (with my co-author David Hopkins) that a Trump victory would not change the party. It would leave most positions “in the hands of orthodox conservative politicians” with the party facing its traditional predicament: “how to reconcile ambitious campaign promises with the realities of governing without alienating conservative ideologues.” Six months into his presidency, we noted that Trump was still pursuing orthodox conservatism, despite constant claims that a pivot toward Democratic positions was coming.
What will 2018 bring? Trump may depart further from Republicans on international trade or double-down on Republican militarism with North Korea. But Bush also imposed protectionist tariffs (on steel) and pursued an unpopular war. The necessity of negotiating with Democrats on spending (and a reduced Senate majority) …read more