Almost everyone on the Right is excited about a Republican takeover of the House, but whether this advances the cause of conservatism or populism or whatever the Right is about these days, remains to be seen. We have had full Republican control over the government twice in the last 20 years—most recently, during the first two years of the Trump Administration, and earlier in the first six years of the Bush Administration. What can we learn from these years?
Republican control of the House from 2017-2019 reminded many Republicans why they supported Trump over establishment choices in the first place. While former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) seduced Trump with promises of support on the border wall and other parts of his agenda in exchange for tax cuts, Ryan turned out to be a passive aggressive snake, more concerned about the Chamber of Commerce than his voters. He soon abandoned ship, eventually taking a lobbying gig, after being completely listless during the 2018 House races.
There was little to show for Republican control of the House, Senate, and White House from 2017-2019. After losing the House, Trump faced even more headwinds. The Republican Senate delivered on judges, but little else in his agenda made much progress because of the Democratic-controlled House and its incessant investigations and interference with presidential power.
Things were not all bad. For most of Trump’s term, the economy was in good shape, tariffs began to improve American industry and increase American wages, and the country avoided new wars, while defeating ISIS in Syria. But many of the conditions that led to this steady national fracturing continued, border and immigration policies remained loose, and cultural conflicts on issues like race got worse.
Republicans were largely AWOL on these developments. They had not gotten the memo that the Reagan years were over, and that corporate America was a fair-weather friend to conservatives, at best. Instead, they continued to thwart any efforts to rein in out-of-control healthcare spending, Silicon Valley censorship, and the bloated defense sector.
Based on their sorry failures to deliver Trump’s agenda and, at times, secret and unprincipled coordination with the Democrats to thwart it, it is hard to get terribly excited about the prospect of a Republican sweep in 2021.
Past as Prologue: The Bush Years
The recent death of Colin Powell has led to a lot of nostalgia for the unironic patriotism and decorum of the Bush years. And, indeed, that time was healthier and closer to America’s historic traditions. But it’s worth remembering how little the GOP had to show for its six years of complete control of the government from 2001-2007.
Bush was a moderate. Before September 11, Bush stated repeatedly he wanted to avoid “nation building.” He demonstrated this when China forced down an EP-3 reconnaissance plane, by exercising restraint and avoiding a major war, in spite of a lot of contemporaneous calls for revenge by the neoconservatives.
After September 11, the War on Terror dominated everything. Americans wanted blood and they wanted security. Bush appeared strong, resolute, and for a moment, was very popular.
Routing the Taliban in Afghanistan was not enough. He also sought a war in Iraq, trying in both places to attack the root causes of Islamic fundamentalism, which he blamed on a lack of democracy. Neoconservatives of various stripes dominated his foreign policy team and cemented his legacy.
On the home front, the war dominated in other ways. Instead of getting a handle on immigration and the border, Bush rearranged the federal government’s org chart and created the Orwellian-named Department of Homeland Security. We invaded the world, while still inviting the world. New terrorists arrived from the Islamic world, including the Boston bombers.
Bush and his allies in the Congress repeatedly floated an amnesty on immigration, only to have it shut down by massive public resistance. But the massive influx of foreigners continued. Newly arriving immigrants and visitors from suspect countries justified the newly expanded national security state. Things never got much safer, although 9/11 turned out to be sui generis.
At the same time, the national security and intelligence agencies became more powerful and less restrained. Most conservatives dismissed concerns about overreach because they believed these efforts were only going to be directed towards foreigners or disloyal newcomers. The unrestrained intelligence agencies showed their capacity for domestic wrongdoing in 2016, when they pursued a vendetta against Trump based on made-up nonsense about Russian collusion. This witch hunt lasted well into his presidency.
Bush dominated the domestic agenda. The forgettable Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was then Speaker of the House. Bush sold his approach as a new, less threatening “compassionate conservatism.” Rather than Reaganesque calls for small government and deregulation, compassionate conservatism sought to use government to conduct conservative social engineering, which would pull poor minorities into the ranks of the middle class, where, one must presume, they would be good citizens and reliable Republicans into the future.
Bush had some traction with this. He got big giveaways to encourage minority home buying, which ended up later being a boomerang due to high default rates. This, in turn, was one of the causes of the massive economic crisis of 2008.
Other pet projects like the Medicare prescription drug plan showed that in spite of their fiscal hawk rhetoric when out of power, Republicans hardly believed in limited government or prudent spending when they had their hands on the wheel. The one thing in common with the Medicare, housing, and agriculture policies of Bush and congressional Republicans was that they used the official story of helping little people to divert enormous amounts of government money to connected industries.
On social issues related to the “culture war,” so-called compassion won out over conservatism. Bush did nothing to roll back affirmative action, abortion, gay marriage, or many other leftist victories from preceding generations. On the Supreme Court—which had and continues to drive much of this social revolution—he appeared completely confused about the stakes, nominating his hometown business lawyer, Harriet Miers, which led to a revolt among conservatives within Congress and among the commentariat.
While issues of race were more or less quiet compared to the Obama years—there were no riots of note, nor the palpable disunity of the 2010s—generally, the Republicans continued to play the suitor to minority voters, expressing self-criticism for America’s past, utopian proposals on education, and perpetual outreach, as if those votes count more and have greater moral impact than those of white voters. Listening to and delivering what existing Republican voters wanted was an afterthought.
With the combination of the Iraq War, the perceived incompetence of the Katrina response, and the disillusionment of many voters from the amnesty push, Democrats again took control of the House and Senate in 2006.
Complete Republican control of the government left very little behind, other than a simmering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and an economy on the brink of implosion.
Which Way, Republican Man?
Many Republicans, particularly in the leadership class, spent the Trump years confused about his appeal and hostile to his policies. They evidenced a strong desire to play the “loyal opposition,” an ornament for a permanent, center-left managerial system. Beneficiaries of that system had little taste for populism or much else that emanated from flyover country.
The old formula of warmed-over Reaganism had failed under McCain and Romney, nor did it carry the day for Trump’s primary opponents. Trump added energy and a positive policy agenda in the form of nationalism that Republicans who desire to win have started to adopt. Times are different, as are Americans’ problems.
Today, the basic fault lines are the attacks on freedom in the name of COVID-19, assaults on free speech by social media and campus censorship, unrestrained immigration, a hate-filled anti-white racial agenda, and economic conditions that weaken the middle class. On all of this, public policy does matter, not least to reverse some of the more extreme policies of the Biden and Obama presidencies.
But electoral politics are only part of the problem. After all, Republican control had little impact on the inertia of the permanent government, which became evident in the Trump years. Plus, many of the problems in the culture are only partly political, such as widespread drug abuse, declining birth rates, lower degrees of trust leading to a coarseness of everyday life, and the decline of respect for America’s history and identity. A Republican House won’t fix any of these things.
Indeed, the illusion of power and control may impede reform in some of these areas. These issues tend to improve when people give up on electoral politics and focus on self-improvement, local organizing, and connecting with family and neighbors to solve problems apart from the government.
More important, it’s clear now that “politics” goes beyond the government and includes the boardroom, the doctor’s office, the barracks, and the classroom. Thus, political activity and attention must go beyond elections to include exercising power and influence over these disputed spaces.
In other words, a congressional takeover devoted to legacy GOP policies won’t fix anything that needs fixing. Beyond the questions of understanding and will, it’s not even clear if there is time for a reversal of demographic conditions, which threaten the two-party system altogether. As demonstrated by the California recall, even horrendous conditions may be immune from electoral sanctions, as politics becomes decoupled from electoral accountability through demographic engineering. It seems unthinkable that this may soon happen to Texas or Georgia, but, then again, Reagan came from California.
Patriotic Americans and Trump supporters need to keep the Republican Party at arm’s length. Their support should be conditional and their expectations realistic, not least because of the mediocre track record of prior Republican control. Their greatest strength would be as “swing voters,” fickle and demanding, whose support must be won and maintained.