The following is an excerpt from “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics” by Steve Benen. It is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Last week was an unpleasant one for the White House. Donald Trump and his team continued to watch the coronavirus crisis intensify; the administration suffered another round of legal defeats; the president’s re-election campaign faced pushback over a needlessly dangerous vanity exercise in Tulsa; and John Bolton exposed Trump as, among other things, a leader who always prioritizes politics over policy.
In isolation, each of these tragedies and setbacks represent fresh trouble for an inept White House, but there’s a common thread that helps tie these debacles together: Republican officials are failing to govern, unwilling and unable to use the levers of power responsibly.
Breakdowns like these are inevitable because Trump and his partisan allies have abandoned their traditional role as members of a governing party. As I argue in my new book, “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics,” they have devolved into what I call a post-policy party.
As a TPM alumnus — I wrote for the site’s homepage on weekends, way back in the summer of 2007 — I’m delighted to offer this excerpt from the book’s introductory chapter, which helps summarize the broader indictment against the modern GOP and its indifference to the substance of policymaking.
Just two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, Republican policymakers were determined to replace the Affordable Care Act with a regressive alternative. For the party, tearing down the health care reform law known as “Obamacare” was more than just a legislative priority; it was an obsession. As the Trump era began and the process moved forward, Republican leaders were practically giddy at the prospect of completing their crusade and killing their white whale.
On March 7, 2017, House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, showed uncharacteristic bravado about his party’s prospects, telling reporters he could “guarantee” the GOP plan would pass.
Seventeen days later, the effort collapsed, and there was no great mystery as to why. Republican leaders struggled mightily to craft a coherent proposal, defend its virtues, and explain exactly what problems they were trying to solve.
As his gambit unraveled, Ryan told reporters, “I think what you’re seeing is, we’re going through the inevitable growing pains of being an opposition party to becoming a governing party.”
It was an unexpected admission from one of the party’s highest-profile leaders, five years removed from his stint as a vice-presidential nominee. With one unscripted comment, Congress’ top GOP lawmaker had effectively conceded that the modern Republican Party, in a dominant position in the nation’s capital, having controlled at least one chamber of Congress for eighteen of the previous twenty-two years, was not ready to be a “governing party.”
A dejected Republican congressional staffer, reflecting on the collapse of the GOP’s health care legislation, added, “I’m starting to think that while we’re pretty good at winning elections, we’re not great at the whole governing thing.”
It was more than a throwaway line from a frustrated aide — it was also a concise summary of one of the most important problems plaguing American politics in the 21st century.
Many voters have grown accustomed to the idea of a national competition pitting two governing parties against each other. One has a more progressive vision, the other a more conservative one, but for most Americans, Democrats and Republicans are basically mirror images of one other, each with an internal range of opinions. The electorate has long had reason to assume that both major parties were mature and responsible policymaking entities, their philosophical differences notwithstanding.
The actions of the Republican Party over the last decade have made it abundantly clear that it’s time to reevaluate that assumption.
The current iteration of the GOP is indifferent to the substance of governing. It is disdainful of expertise and analysis. It is hostile toward evidence and arithmetic. It is tethered to few, if any, meaningful policy preferences. It does not know, and does not care, about how competing proposals should be crafted, scrutinized, or implemented.
The modern Republican Party has become a post-policy party.
The first GOP “repeal and replace” effort on health care was a striking example of the party failing to even pretend that substance guides its work in any significant way, but it was emblematic of a much larger truth: in recent years, Republicans have brought their post-policy posture to practically every debate and every issue.
Some of this can be explained by GOP officials being put in a position to exercise governmental power despite an ideological disposition that’s reflexively antagonistic toward the non-military public sector. As the New York Times’ Neil Irwin wrote early on in Donald Trump’s presidency, most Republican officials routinely have an “aversion to doing the messy work of making policy…. If you make a career opposing even the basic work of making the government run, it’s hard to pivot to writing major legislation.”
But more often than not, Republicans simply find it easier to bypass the rigors of real policymaking. Reading policy analyses, attending hearings, negotiating with rivals and stakeholders, and thinking through the consequences of policy decisions requires countless hours of tiresome and unglamorous work. Peddling poll-tested, base-motivating, half-baked, hashtag-ready talking points, on the other hand, is both painless and ideologically satisfying. For GOP officials, this doesn’t seem to be an especially tough call.
If the party’s candidates and officeholders were punished by voters over their disinterest toward governing, they’d have no choice but to take their official responsibilities more seriously. But Republicans’ post-policy attitudes have also been embraced by many of the party’s supporters — and so long as GOP candidates can win elections while being lazy about policymaking, they have little incentive to change.
The implications of this approach to modern governance are all-encompassing. Voters routinely elect Republicans to the nation’s most powerful offices, expecting GOP policymakers to have the technocratic wherewithal to identify problems, weigh alternative solutions, forge coalitions, accept compromises, and apply some level of governmental competence, if not expertise. The party has consistently proven those hopes misguided.
By any fair measure, the GOP excels at acquiring power and exploiting electoral structures to keep it, often in defiance of the American electorate’s will. Republicans may fail in breathtaking fashion when trying to govern, but they have unrivaled expertise in gerrymandering and voter-suppression techniques.
The shortcoming quickly becomes evident after Election Day, when Republicans roll up their sleeves and clumsily try to use that power in pursuit of their ostensible priorities.
Making matters worse, while our Madisonian model of government expects the governing process to include a series of compromises — between parties, between chambers, between competing branches of government, engaged in a tug-of-war for power and influence — the GOP’s shift into post-policy politics short-circuits the process itself.
One of the more common questions mainstream voters ask routinely is why the two major parties so often seem incapable of working together toward common goals. Much has been written in recent years about the asymmetric relationship between Democrats and Republicans: the degree to which the latter has become radicalized in ways the former has not, and the effects of this dynamic. As political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann documented in their seminal work, 2012’s “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the Politics of Extremism,” those observations are rooted in uncontested facts.
But the GOP’s transition into a post-policy party represents a large piece of the same ugly mosaic. The United States’ two major parties are no longer simply offering different answers to the same questions — they’re now asking entirely different kinds of questions. There is no point on a common continuum at which to reach compromise.
The Democrats’ approach is consistently substantive: when party officials consider a policy challenge, they tend to act deliberately, evaluating the granular details in ways Republicans rarely consider. The point isn’t that Democrats are always right — they’re not — but rather that they at least make a point of approaching their governing responsibilities in ways that reflect a degree of seriousness and due diligence.
Too often, when the modern Republican Party controls the levers of federal power, it decides in-depth scrutiny of major legislation is neither necessary nor desirable, since it would produce unsatisfying information the party would be inclined to ignore anyway.
The GOP’s post-policy evolution — or devolution, depending on one’s perspective — did not occur overnight. Early on in George W. Bush’s presidency, the Republican White House launched a “faith-based initiative” intended to dramatically increase the role of religious institutions in providing social services with taxpayer funds. The president tapped John DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist, to oversee the project.
DiIulio had high hopes for what he and his team could accomplish, though they were soon dashed. “There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus,” he wrote in a confidential letter in 2002. “What you’ve got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”
The political scientist explained further that he was applying the term to White House staff, who “talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted of reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible.”
DiIulio’s frustrations were understandable. Scrutinizing institutions from an academic perspective, he expected to see Republican officials shaping policy the way the party had traditionally operated. Throughout the modern political era, the GOP was a conservative party with core philosophical principles — free-market solutions, limited government, balanced budgets, social conservatism, and a robust national defense — which Republicans generally pursued in a rigorous and intellectually serious fashion.
But soon after arriving in the nation’s capital, DiIulio grew disillusioned, dejected by a GOP administration that valued electoral goals at least as much as governing.
In the years that followed, the Republican Party’s disinterest in cultivating a “policy apparatus” spread. After Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the GOP’s Mayberry Machiavellis took over the entirety of the party. On Capitol Hill, Republicans abandoned policy arguments altogether, rejecting the Democratic administration’s ideas reflexively — and in many instances, incoherently — even when Obama agreed with his Republican rivals.
In one especially shameless instance, GOP lawmakers demanded that the Democratic White House endorse legislation to create a bipartisan commission on deficit reduction. When Obama did exactly what they requested, Republicans quickly killed the bill. In fact, six GOP senators who cosponsored the legislation ended up voting against their own proposal.
While absurd developments such as these played out in public, GOP lawmakers’ offices privately stopped hiring policy staffers and started hiring media flaks, because as far as Republicans were concerned, messaging trumped governing, and selling a conservative vision to the public took priority over undergirding a conservative vision with serious legislative proposals that worked.
In May 2009, for example, GOP leaders were still licking their wounds on the heels of back-to-back election cycles in which Democrats made significant gains. Republicans were lost without a map, lacking any kind of vision or policy agenda. It was at this point that the House GOP conference chairman advised his colleagues to start getting rid of legislative staff — aides responsible for writing and scrutinizing policy proposals, giving the party its capacity to govern — and start hiring aides who would focus exclusively on media.
The conference chairman at the time was a congressman from Indiana named Mike Pence. The far-right Hoosier became the nation’s vice president a decade later.
Five years after Pence’s staffing recommendation, in November 2013, Republican representative Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, said publicly that the Republicans’ House majority should give up on trying to pass meaningful legislation and instead spend the next year looking for ways to strip Democrats of their Senate majority.
“Everything we do in this body should be about messaging to win back the Senate,” he said. “That’s it.”
That statement quintessentially captured the hallmark of post-policy thinking: the belief that policy outcomes and substantive governing are largely irrelevant. It also helped encapsulate the Republican Party’s posture during the Obama presidency: GOP lawmakers defined their policy preferences by reflexively opposing the White House, denying the president any legislative victories, and prioritizing the acquisition of power above all else.
For example, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Republicans’ Senate leader since 2007, was often candid about how he approached his responsibilities. Ahead of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, the GOP senator settled on a strategy of maximalist partisanship, demanding total Republican opposition to Democratic proposals — including the ones Republicans agreed with — in the hopes of derailing the Obama presidency. Whether or not this benefited the country in a time of crisis was deemed irrelevant. The United States was in the grips of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, and voters had just roundly rejected his party at the ballot box, but McConnell’s sole focus was on undermining a new president who’d just defeated the Republican nominee by ten million votes.
As far as McConnell was concerned, he’d cracked the code of American politics: bipartisan ideas tend to be popular because they’re bipartisan. When the public sees bills pass with broad support, voters are satisfied that the parties considered a question, worked on an answer, and came to a sensible conclusion. For the Kentucky lawmaker, this meant it was necessary to say no to everything in the Obama agenda, lest anyone think the Democratic president was succeeding. “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell told The Atlantic magazine, referring to legislation backed by the White House.
This often put McConnell and his party on the wrong side of public attitudes, but the senator believed he’d cracked that code, too. “Public opinion can change, but it is affected by what elected officials do,” he told National Journal, a publication covering politics and policy, in March 2010.”Our reaction to what [Democrats] were doing had a lot to do with how the public felt about it. Republican unity in the House and Senate has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion.”
In other words, the Senate GOP leader wasn’t concerned with defying the will of the electorate by killing popular legislation; instead, he focused on making popular legislation less popular by trying to kill it, without regard for merit or public interests. McConnell’s plan was predicated on the idea that if he could just turn every debate into a partisan food fight, voters would be repulsed; Obama’s outreach to Republicans would be perceived as a failure; progressive ideas would fail; and GOP candidates would be rewarded for their obstinance.
Governing was not among McConnell’s principal concerns.
The Kentucky senator added soon after, in reference to his party’s approach to policymaking, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president…. Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for president [in 2012] the maximum opportunity to be successful.”
It was an aggressively post-policy perspective, articulated in a shameless way, which helped define the era. Americans who expected powerful elected officials to be principally concerned with the public’s interests were told they’d have to wait — because for McConnell, undermining the popular and democratically elected president was his party’s “single most important” priority.
Had the conservative lawmaker been a campaign operative or a Republican National Committee hatchet man, the posture might have been slightly more defensible. But McConnell was in a position of public trust, elected to serve the interests of Americans and responsible for federal legislating. The Kentuckian, however, made little secret of the fact that he had other goals he considered more important.
Around the same time McConnell said his party’s top priority was denying Obama a second term, Nevada’s Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, delivered floor remarks in which he said, “Our number one priority is still getting people back to work. And the most important change we can make is in working more productively as a unified body to help our economy regain its strength.” The contrast between the party leaders helped clarify how dramatically Democrats and Republicans differed when approaching governing.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, John Boehner was similarly hostile toward Obama-era policymaking during his tenure as House Speaker. In the years following the 2010 midterms, as congressional productivity dropped to levels unseen since the clerk’s office started keeping track in the 1940s, the Ohio Republican, echoing his ideological predisposition, tried to characterize the data as worthy of celebration: Congress, Boehner insisted in July 2013, “ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal,” rather than “how many new laws we create.”
When he and his Republican colleagues sought power, they told the electorate that they would work to find solutions to national problems. After having been successful at the ballot box, the House Speaker effectively tried to rebrand failure — as if GOP leaders deserved credit for their record of futility, making the clumsy transition from lawmakers to law enders.
Instead of finding solutions to ongoing challenges, Boehner was reduced to arguing that Congress should focus on undoing solutions to previous challenges. Given an opportunity to look forward and make national progress, he saw value in looking backward and rescinding what had already been done. However, Republicans weren’t actually repealing laws, either. If Boehner was right, and that was the proper metric for judging his GOP conference’s record, it was further evidence of the party’s ineptitude.
Barack Obama’s exasperation with the GOP’s refusal to engage in substantive debates was hard to miss. During an October 2014 address at Northwestern University, the president marveled at Republican leaders’ insistence that the nation’s top economic priority was sweeping tax cuts for the wealthy, even as the gap between rich and poor grew larger.
Straying from his prepared text, Obama, visibly gobsmacked, asked his audience rhetorically, “Why? What are the facts? What is the empirical data that would justify that position? Kellogg Business School, you guys are all smart. You do all this analysis. You run the numbers. Has anybody here seen a credible argument that that is what our economy needs right now?”
The questions reflected certain assumptions about how the president approached governing. In his mind, those proposing far-reaching policy changes, just as a matter of course, have a responsibility to bolster their arguments with in-depth research, not just tweets and cable-news sound bites.
Or put another way, Obama expected Republicans to approach substantive debates as if they were members of a governing party rather than a post-policy one. It’s no wonder that deliberations between the Democratic president and GOP leaders invariably left participants frustrated and unsatisfied: Obama, attentive to the details of governing, encouraged Republicans to support their ideas with evidence and scholarship, while Republicans had little use for either, focused as they were solely on political and ideological goals.
It was this policy nihilism that helped open the door to a new leader who would cement the GOP’s post-policy status in ways that were difficult to even imagine a few years earlier.
Steve Benen is a producer on The Rachel Maddow Show and the author of The MaddowBlog. Benen’s articles and op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Monthly, The American Prospect, Salon.com, and other publications. For his work on TRMS, he has received two Emmy Awards, and has been nominated for three more. He lives in Vermont.
From “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics” by Steve Benen. Copyright © 2020 by Steve Benen. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.