In Sunday’s New York Times, I argued that Republicans need to give up on shady supply-side fiscal policy — which has boxed them in legislatively — and adopt a new economic and social policy agenda that makes peace with the welfare state, focusing instead on reducing the regulatory frictions that are really holding back our economy. “The free-market welfare state may seem like an oxymoron — especially from the perspective of today’s conservative ideologues,” I wrote, “but it’s in fact the best idea for a fractious, cornered Republican Party.”

I want to clarify that I don’t expect the current Republican Congress to absorb this message. I don’t expect most Republican members to be able even to hear it. I think most of them are way too far gone. They are basically running on ideological auto-pilot, doing the only thing they know how to do. Their problem is that this doesn’t work. But I doubt they’re going to be able to accept that until they’re in the minority again — or until they feel in their guts that they’re about to be.

Congressional Republicans have simply refused to acknowledge or to reckon in any way with the fact that Republican voters repudiated standard right-leaning small-government economic and social policy when they chose Donald Trump as their standard bearer. I don’t think they can grasp that this is why their legislative agenda is in shambles. Paul Ryan and the Freedom Caucus/Tea Party faction have very weirdly behaved as though they have some sort of mandate. And there’s a lazy assumption among GOP elites that the fact that the guy in the White House happens to be a Republican means that they ought to get everything they’ve always desired, no adjustments necessary. But the Republican in the White House is in the White House because he ran against them and won. Trump pointedly promised not to cut Social Security and Medicare. He praised single-payer healthcare systems, even while pledging to repeal and replace Obamacare. Moreover, he promised massive increases in infrastructure and military spending. Republican voters lapped up Trump’s big-government platform, rejecting yet another helping of reheated Reaganism.

The GOP seems to be in total denial that this ever happened. Republican leaders on the Hill are just vexed by their inability to move a legislative agenda that embodies a radical version of the conservative economic policy platform conservative voters rejected in droves. Molly Ball’s incredibly entertaining Atlantic account of the exasperation setting in among Republican legislators makes it pretty clear that they blame Trump for their woes. And it is obvious that Trump’s degeneracy and ineptitude makes the problem a lot worse. But Trump’s not really the problem. The problem is that the House leadership is trying to ram a legislative agenda through Congress that Republican voters don’t want. So of course they’re stuck. It’s a strange spectacle.  

The Politics of Falling in Line

Trump’s problem — the expanding inferno of corruption and scandal aside — was that he came in with no knowledge or interest in policymaking. He didn’t have a network of think tanks and policy journals devoted to his agenda, and he staffed up with a lot of loyalists, know-nothings, and cranks. To the extent that he has anybody on board who knows what they’re doing, they’re VP Mike Pence and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s guys, like OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, who peddles the wares Trump successfully ran against. For all Trump’s claims about being a master negotiator, he’s been played again and again by the hard bargainers in the right wing of the GOP, who have successfully pushed their people and ideas into the administration’s personnel and policy vacuum. What’s unclear to me is why they thought this would work.

Now, it’s true that rank and file partisan voters will tend to follow their leader. There’s an interesting interview today at Vox with Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, authors of Democracy for Realists. Achen and Bartels emphasize that voters don’t have strong independent policy preferences. Ordinary people don’t think very much about politics and have very little reason to gather information and form opinions about policy. But voters do have strong feelings about what kind of people they are. Voters are attracted to leaders who appeal to their sense of identity. Once they latch on to a political champion, voters will basically support whatever policies their guy (or gal) supports. You know how a duckling will “imprint” on the first moving object it sees and then follow it everywhere? Achen and Bartels say voters are a bit like that once they imprint on a political leader. So, for example, Trump significantly reshaped conservative attitudes toward Vladimir Putin and Russia in pretty short order.

So it’s not totally outrageous for standard-issue GOP elites to think they might bring wayward Republican voters back in line. But Republican voters didn’t imprint on Paul Ryan, they imprinted on Donald Trump. Which means that Republican elites have to bring Trump in line. But it’s unlikely that Trump will ever really affirm or meaningfully advocate Paul Ryan’s or Mark Meadows’s or Ted Cruz’s ideas about economic and social policy. It’s doubtful Trump could get himself to care enough about policy to even understand these ideas.

This is one of the things Congressional Republicans seem to be miffed about. They think Trump should be doing more to sell their agenda. But it’s their agenda. And, at the risk of being tediously repetitive, Trump ran against it and won. Sure, he’ll get up and say, “This is a great bill, the best bill,” but it’s always perfunctory, tepid, and vague. His heart isn’t in it. My guess is that, if it weren’t politically out of bounds, Trump would sell single-payer with charismatically magnanimous brio. He’s pitching the standard GOP agenda he opposed in the primaries because he has no capacity either to flesh out the agenda he ran on or to move it through Congress.

The Winning Alternative to Economic Nationalism

Trump’s lack of agenda-setting and policy-making capacity allowed conservative Republicans to think they had a chance to pressure him into selling their stale platform, which has kept them from facing up to the fact that practically no one finds it appetizing. But Trump will never sell anything but Trump. That’s why unified Republican government has turned out to be pathetically impotent. And now the GOP itself is in real trouble.    

My current hunch (and it’s not anything more than that) is that Republicans are going to lose the House in a midterm bloodbath. If they don’t want to lose the White House and the Senate in 2020, there needs to be a reckoning. GOP elites really don’t want to be the party of Trumpian nationalism. But older white non-urban Americans (aka, “Republicans”) want their damn government checks. Redistributive social spending is what makes government “big” and checks for old white people is mostly what the welfare state is. Voter policy preferences are fairly pliable, but there are limits. If up-and-comers in the Republican Party try to trot out supply-side undead Reagan 12.0, they’ll get drubbed in primaries by Trump-style nationalists intent on delivering the big-government militarism Trump promised.

The free-market welfare state agenda I’m proposing offers reasonable Republicans a principled, pro-growth alternative to both Trumpian economic nationalism and the GOP’s failed fiscal-policy-first formula. I don’t expect most current Congressional Republicans to be receptive to it, but conservatives looking ahead to post-2018 reconstruction have every reason to take it seriously.