The Republican National Committee headquarters, Sept. 9, 2014.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

As Election Day nears, Republicans 'still have no agenda'

— Updated

With Republicans having controlled each of the levers of federal power for the last couple of years, some may assume that GOP officials would be on the campaign trail right now, bragging about their record. As even the most casual of observers no doubt realize, that's not at all what's happening.

In fact, it's largely the opposite. Republicans, ignoring their tax package and hoping voters have forgotten about their health care efforts, are pretending the last couple of years haven't happened. Instead, as the New York Times and the Washington Post reported today, GOP officeholders and candidates are heavily invested in fear as an electoral life-preserver.

The list of things Americans are supposed to be afraid of isn't short -- immigrants, crime, Nancy Pelosi, kneeling football players -- but it's also missing something important: Republicans don't appear to have any kind of policy agenda on these issues or any other.

Writing for Bloomberg News late last week, conservative Ramesh Ponnuru, made a compelling case that GOP officials effectively gave up on pursuing any meaningful goals in 2018, and they're not making much of an effort to lay out an agenda for the next Congress should they hold onto power. Republicans, Ponnuru explained, "still have no agenda."

Republicans might be able to expand their ranks in the Senate without campaigning to do anything in particular. Perhaps they will even hold a slimmed-down majority in the House. But they will find, as they found in early 2017, that it is difficult to get the party working together on an agenda without having built a consensus before the election.

I am tempted to say that there is something, if not anti-democratic, at least contrary to the spirit of good government, in a political party so thoroughly abandoning the notion that it will tell us in advance what it will do if it wins an election. If it did that, voters would be able to judge its program in casting their ballots this time, and next time they would be able to look back and see how much of that program was achieved and with what results.

This is not to say GOP leaders lack big-picture ideas. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently made quite clear, he and his party are still eager to tear down the Affordable Care Act and target social-insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security. Donald Trump apparently has similar ambitions about more tax cuts.

But even if we assume these Republican leaders are sincere, vague goals do not a policy agenda make.

Even if the GOP holds onto power -- a distinct possibility -- the party hasn't given any indication of how, or even whether, they'd pursue their objectives.

There's no great mystery as to why Republicans are so reluctant to talk about what they'd do if they maintained their majorities. In fact, there's a combination of factors: the post-policy party isn't especially interested in governing; GOP officials realize that most of their ideas are woefully unpopular; a policy blueprint would distract from the Republicans' "Nancy Pelosi and immigrants are coming to get you" message; and substantive proposals do little to motivate the party's far-right base. ("Many Republican voters seem more excited by inchoate cultural grievances than by anything related to public policy," Ponnuru added.)

There are, however, meaningful consequences to abandoning the pretense of coming up with a governing agenda, presenting it to voters, and vowing to implement it if elected. It's not just problematic in a functioning political system, it also eliminates the possibility of a popular mandate.

The result is an unpopular party with a strange closing message: they don't want to talk about what they've done with power or what they'll do with power if they're allowed to keep it.