As Congress gets closer to an agreement on a multitrillion-dollar budget package, there is one actor notably missing from the negotiations: the Republican Party.
While Democrats are fighting over the details of policy proposals that could create the nation’s first paid family and medical leave program, make pre-K universal, lower the cost of child care, expand Medicare and prepare the nation for the effects of climate change, the GOP is contentedly sitting on the sidelines, throwing spitballs and complaining that the whole thing is going to cost too much money.
Republican campaigns are increasingly defined by a laser-like focus on cultural issues, such as "critical race theory" or nonexistent voter fraud, with barely a mention of serious substantive policies. None of this is even considered unusual or surprising anymore. It’s just the way things are in politics today.
Ironically, it wasn’t that long ago that Republicans boasted about being the party of ideas. Conservative think tanks proudly rolled out policy proposals and encouraged Republican officials to embrace them. Today, other than venerating former President Donald Trump or accusing Democrats of being socialists or communists, it’s hard to find a single policy issue that defines the modern Republican Party.
Earlier this month, Trump said addressing the nonexistent election fraud in the 2020 election is “the single most important thing for Republicans to do.” The majority of Republicans appear to agree.
Before last year’s presidential election, Republicans didn’t even bother to write a policy platform. They simply crossed out “2016” from that year’s platform and replaced it with “2020.” Even though they controlled Congress for the first two years of Trump’s presidency, their major piece of domestic legislation was to cut taxes for the nation’s wealthiest citizens. Efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act faltered, in part, because after seven years of condemning the bill, the party couldn’t come up with a policy replacement. After Democrats took control of the House in 2018, they passed hundreds of pieces of legislation that merely gathered dust on the desk of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Now with Democrats in charge, little has changed. Though a handful of Republicans embraced a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, there’s been no serious GOP input into the Democrats' budget plan. No one in Washington expects a single Republican member to cross the aisle to work with Democrats or even allow a bill to pass on a party-line vote.
Indeed, Republicans were praised in recent weeks for not filibustering a bill that prevented a default on the U.S. debt. Of course, when the bill did come to the floor, not a single Republican voted “aye.” To the extent that the GOP is playing a role in Senate and House debates, it is often focused on gumming up the works. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is holding up as many as 40 of President Joe Biden’s nominees, mostly for the State Department, for what appear to be mostly political reasons. Being the stick in the spokes is good politics for Cruz.
On the state level, Republican candidates don’t talk about education, health care or the economy in anything other than empty platitudes. In California, Republicans sought to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom and rallied around talk show host Larry Elder. His website, which read like it was written by an unpaid intern, was merely a series of complaints about Newsom and contained hardly a single serious policy prescription.
In the neck-and-neck Virginia governor race, the contrast is even more stark. If you go to Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe’s campaign website, you could spend half the day reading just one of the 20 detailed policy papers on everything from growing the economy and lowering prescription drug costs to computer science education, combating food insecurity and creating affordable housing. Republican Glenn Youngkin’s plan to reinvigorate Virginia’s economy is fewer than 110 words and contains such useful nuggets like, “Glenn will jumpstart our economy by ... Keeping Virginia Open and Protecting Lives & Livelihoods.”
Then there’s this ad from Nevada Republican gubernatorial candidate Michele Fiore, which is a perfect microcosm of current Republican ideology. It has veneration of Trump; attacks on Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah; a pickup truck and a loaded handgun; and three “policy issues”: no "critical race theory," no vaccine mandates and more investigations of voter fraud.
In fairness, Republican candidates do know their audience. Fiore is running for the Republican nomination in Nevada, and these are precisely the hot-button issues that resonate with the party’s most dedicated supporters. Yet, for all the complaints about the state of the country, Republicans are offering few ideas for how to fix it — unless one believes that stopping educators from teaching kids about racism will get America back on track.
All of this is simply taken for granted. The national news media simply accepts that the default Republican position on any and all policy issues is steadfast opposition with no alternative proposals. To evoke a phrase by a former Republican president, the modern GOP is profiting from the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
As Republicans filibuster bill after bill that Democrats propose (on Wednesday, it was expanding voting rights) much of the media commentary focuses on the politics of their obstructionism. There’s little discussion of this bizarre and unprecedented situation in which one party is gleefully absenting itself from any involvement in the policy issues that affect the lives of millions of Americans.
It’s true, of course, that Republicans are the party of limited government and, thus, are less inclined to focus on policy ideas that would broaden the role of the federal government. Still, there was a time a few decades ago when congressional Republicans actually worked with Democrats to address serious national issues. While some of that still goes on today, the impulse to obstruct is far greater, and increasingly there are GOP members of Congress who are focused exclusively on getting on TV or trolling Democrats. They wear their disinterest in passing bills with pride.
The result is that voters are being given two options: the policy ideas Democrats want to implement or not implementing those policy ideas. To put it mildly, this is not a healthy situation for American democracy, particularly one in which the tools of obstructionism are so numerous. America doesn’t just need a Republican Party that isn’t beholden to Trump and his authoritarian politics. They need one that actually thinks governing matters.