Why Republicans should keep doing nothing
Yesterday, President Trump issued his latest warning to the GOP Senate, saying that this was their "last chance to do the right thing" and repeal the Obama-era health-care law and replace it with something better. Reform-minded conservative commentators like The New York Times' Ross Douthat are already suggesting the opposite: that the GOP should stop trying to tackle issues, like health care, on which the party has no consensus on what it wants, and focus instead on areas of agreement, like taxes.
Me? I don't think Douthat goes far enough. I think the GOP, and the Trump administration in particular, should embrace their most basic instinct and do absolutely nothing.
Trump should know better than to think passing the GOP agenda will improve his popularity, even with Republicans. When Trump ran for the nomination, he ran explicitly against virtually everything that the more traditional Republican candidates advocated doing. Fighting in the Middle East, cutting entitlements, rolling back gay marriage, passing multilateral trade deals: If the GOP was for it, he was against it. As president, Trump has delegated most of the lawmaking and priority setting to the Republican Congress, and the results are predictable: an agenda that is exceptionally unpopular with the American people, and not even especially popular with Republicans. Indeed, the GOP has accomplished the remarkable feat of making ObamaCare popular simply by proving that they have no good ideas about what to replace it with.
So why not switch to a more popular subject, like cutting taxes? Well, consider the risks of action.
A complex tax reform aiming to be revenue-neutral would have to raise taxes on somebody, or would have to be offset with spending cuts. Neither is going to prove at all popular. A simpler, unfunded tax cut, meanwhile, would have to be temporary (because if it increased the deficit beyond a 10-year window it would be ineligible for reconciliation), and would transparently increase the deficit, potentially by trillions. The latter would inevitably give moderates hives, while hardcore conservatives would likely hold out for something that structurally changed the federal code, pointing out, correctly, that George W. Bush's temporary tax cuts gave the next Democratic president leverage to raise rates only on higher incomes, and thereby make the code more progressive — the opposite of the base-broadening aim of conservative tax reformers.
Even if they shift to taxes, the GOP could find itself in exactly the same situation as it is today on health care, unable to agree with itself and deliver a win for the team.
But why do they need a win at all?
In 2018, Republicans will be playing on home turf, with only eight Senate seats out of 33 to defend, six of them impregnably safe. And while the Democrats have an advantage in generic polling in the House, they probably need as much as a five-point lead to have a chance to take over the chamber. In the absence of either a raft of Republican retirements or a "wave" of Democratic enthusiasm, the Republicans can hang on by playing defensively. So why go on offense with a bold agenda?
Trying to do things only gives the other party a target to shoot at. And from the war in Iraq to the bailout of the collapsing American financial system, the initiatives of the last Republican administration have not proved enduringly popular, to say the least. By contrast, if the Democrats have to run against a do-nothing Republican Congress, then the burden is on them to demonstrate plans that are popular with the American people. Most Americans don't think they have any — they think the Democrats' agenda is just trying to defeat Trump. In a purely negative election battle like that, the Republicans have a long track record of success.
Meanwhile, consider the impact of do-nothingism on the metric that matters most to Americans: the economy. Business likes predictability, and that's one thing that endless gridlock provides. Of course, business interests would prefer a big tax cut — but with corporate profits at record highs, there's precious little evidence that they need one to boost economic growth. And doing nothing can deliver a lot of goods to business anyway. Regulations can go unenforced, and taxes can effectively be cut simply by failing to conduct audits. Even the failure to staff the government fully can be spun as a reduction in head count by attrition. The stock market keeps going up and the unemployment rate keeps going down. Are Republicans really that confident that they could do better than that?
Republicans shouldn't worry about setting their sights low. On the contrary: They should embrace their inner Bob Dole, a man who once said of being a legislator: "All you need to know is this. You can never go wrong by voting for a bill that fails, or against a bill that passes."
So don't cut taxes. Don't cut spending. Don't repeal ObamaCare, and don't replace it. Don't pass laws. Don't start wars. Don't negotiate peace. Don't staff the government. Don't enforce regulations. Don't. Do. Anything.
Take a recess. Hit the links. And don't worry about it. After all, America is already great.