Do Republicans really want to keep the House?
Republicans appear very worried about the possibility of losing the House of Representatives this fall. For good reason.
The president's party losing the midterm elections is not exactly unheard of. This happens for a variety of reasons. President Trump's biggest problem is that he lost to Hillary Clinton in a number of suburban congressional districts currently represented by business-class Republicans. Spoiler alert: The Clintonite candidates running against them will do just as good a job taking care of these voters' stock portfolios as our old friend Rep. Blueblazer McEntrepreneurship.
Still, I can't help but wonder if the average GOP congressman really cares about the party winning as opposed to holding on to his or her own seat. Obviously most of them would rather control the House than not. There is every reason to believe that a Democratic majority in the lower chamber would vote to impeach Trump, even though without the Senate — which they have little chance of taking over — they cannot remove him from office. In fact, they might do this precisely because it would serve their purposes as a consequence-free gesture worth hundred of millions of dollars in free advertising. Imagine two years of every Democratic politician, talking head, and hanger-on mechanically repeating, "President Trump has been impeached."
But it's not clear to me that most Republicans want to keep the House for legislative reasons. Passing bills and that sort of thing? Meh. We already know how much they care about that.
I would challenge even the most enthusiastic political junkie to name a single piece of legislation — not including continuing spending resolutions — that Republicans have passed since the tax bill last December. For years under Barack Obama the GOP moaned that if only they could get the Senate and the White House they would "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act. They spent all of last summer attempting to do the latter and got nowhere. Ditto some kind of immigration bill. Since then they've hardly bothered.
No one cares what "Republicans" do or think. All attention is focused on the president. Weeks and months at a time go by without my even remembering that the legislative branch of the federal government exists. I cannot be the only one.
Why is this the case? I think the best answer is that Republicans have accepted inactivity because they understand they have nothing left to do. Absent the possibility of a supermajority in the Senate, they aren't going to get rid of ObamaCare. This is in part because they don't want to. It is probably the case that many Republican senators who felt comfortable voting to repeal it on multiple occasions when they knew the bills were going to fail would invent some excuse for not supporting similar legislation in the future. The reason for this is simple: Medicaid expansion and the provisions for Americans with pre-existing conditions are wildly popular, even in red and purple states. Voters have moved on from Obama-era talking points, and so have politicians.
Last December's tax-cut package represented the summit of Republican ambition — and exhausted it. If that sounds unfair, consider the fact that the outgoing speaker of the House said as much himself earlier this year. Making numbers go down on a piece of paper so that rich people get more money: What else does a typical Republican in Congress really care about? There are individual representatives and senators dedicated to pet causes such as criminal justice reform or, Lord help us, drug legalization, but they are a minority. Doing the occasional bipartisan press conference or Heritage Foundation policy panel seems to satisfy them.
Which helps to explain not only Republican inertia but the party's likely doom in November. You cannot run on something you did a year ago that has had almost no meaningful effect upon the life of the average voter. Some people will continue to pull the lever for Republicans because they operate under the illusion that doing so is their only means of demonstrating their opposition to abortion. Others will because they associate the Republican Party with the president, whose appeal among his base is as strong now as it was in 2016. If you are not a committed social conservative or a fan of Trump, what possible reason could you have for voting Republican?
This is a question that the party is going to have to answer sooner or later. Trump was the greatest, albeit the least expected gift, the GOP could have received in 2016. No other Republican candidate had a chance of winning Michigan or Pennsylvania in a general election. His special genius was and continues to be his ability to turn amorphous cultural issues that have seemingly little to do with public policy per se — dog-whistle concerns about "the flag," kitchen-table griping about political correctness, vague feelings of resentment — into grounds for supporting him and by extension his party. In the good old days when Paul Ryan and Co. were coming up, Republicans spoke about these things mainly in code: "entrepreneurship," "hard work," "opportunity," "handouts," "paying your fair share." Their version worked against Democrats, but not against President Obama, and there is good reason to think it will never win them another election. Can they replicate Trump's? Somehow it is difficult to imagine Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) taking to Twitter to berate professional athletes by name.
Until Republicans decide what they are going to pretend to believe in next, even they won't be able to say why they want to be in office.