Anyone paying attention to politics over the past few years could tell that House Speaker John Boehner had to spend most of his time and energy barely keeping the peace in his party. But he and other Republican leaders contributed to the root cause of his difficulty — which is that conservatives don’t know what they want.
During the long period of Republican presidential ascendancy, congressional Republicans, who were usually in the minority, got used to taking orders from the White House. In the past 35 years, there was only a six-year period during which they set their own agenda. In 1994, with Bill Clinton in office and Newt Gingrich in effective leadership of House Republicans, they drew up a “Contract with America” featuring tax relief, term limits, welfare reform and other proposals.
They kept fighting for this basic agenda. Clinton signed variants of some of it; George W. Bush campaigned on unfinished parts of it and enacted more of it. But Bush also added his own initiatives, and congressional Republicans largely went back to follow-the-president mode.
They were on their own again after Bush. But during Barack Obama’s presidency, they mostly haven’t emulated their Gingrich-era predecessors. They haven’t advanced a broad set of policies that they want to see take effect. With Boehner as their leader, House Republicans drew up a “pledge to America” in 2010 but deliberately made it lower-profile than the 1994 contract, and never used it to guide floor action. The one policy on which they led was overhauling Medicare, where Rep. Paul Ryan got congressional Republicans to support reform and then the party’s presidential candidates followed. But in 2014, Republican leaders discouraged candidates from running on ideas of their own and instead urged them to campaign against Obama’s.
Since taking control of Congress, they haven’t voted on conservative proposals to deal with health care, taxes or higher education. They’ve telegraphed that they’re planning to wait for a presidential nominee to supply a platform. While they wait, congressional leaders including Boehner have tried to get budget bills passed on time and acted on the various priorities of business groups. That M.O. inspires neither conservatives nor voters generally.
But conservative activist groups haven’t had an agenda, either — no list of policies they want Congress to enact or presidential candidates to endorse. And this leads to an unwinnable situation for those rare occasions when Republican politicians do make proposals. Because there’s no generally accepted conservative plan for subsidizing primary education or health care, when Republicans propose something it can always be judged as inadequate when compared to some undefined alternative.
Neither congressional leaders nor conservative activists set policy goals for each year, but in the late stages of the budget-writing process the latter tend to stumble on some demand that they then seek to make the leaders deliver. In 2013, conservatives decided it was time to defund Obamacare; now it’s time to defund Planned Parenthood.
Their vagueness about what they want has also affected the presidential contest. A few groups, it’s true, have asked for specific policy commitments. Pro-lifers have gotten most of the candidates to agree to sign a bill banning late-term abortions, and free-market groups have gotten them to oppose the renewal of the Export-Import Bank’s charter. But for the most part conservatives haven’t been seeking specifics, just badges of identity: signs that the candidates identify themselves as part of the conservative tribe.
An attractive agenda that appeals to a broad range of conservatives and enough moderates to forge a majority coalition: It’s easy enough for a columnist to state that goal, much harder for an officeholder to achieve it. But it isn’t clear that Republicans generally see the absence of such an agenda as a problem. And that’s a major reason to expect that Boehner’s successor will have no happier a tenure than he’s had.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.