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As Senate Democrats were getting ready for the final votes on their big health care and climate legislation late last week, their Republican counterparts seemed prepared to make one last, desperate stand: They were going to force votes on an array of controversial amendments, pull out every available procedural delay and rouse their supporters at the grassroots level, all in the hopes of breaking Democratic unanimity or, absent that, making the final vote on the legislation as politically painful as possible.
It was going to be a familiar ritual; there had been similar spectacles in the past. On Capitol Hill, staff, advocates and journalists hunkered down and checked supplies ― my indefatigable colleague Igor Bobic said he was stocking up on Red Bull and Girl Scout Cookies ― and the only question was whether it would last until Monday or Tuesday, or maybe even longer if one of the wavering Democratic senators had second thoughts or new demands.
But by Saturday evening, it was clear the Republicans’ hearts weren’t in it.
They passed up an opportunity to demand a reading of the bill, which alone would have taken several hours, and they eventually agreed to tighten the time of debate on each amendment. During the proceedings, GOP leaders put out press releases, throwing out familiar arguments about Democratic tax hikes supposedly killing the economy or reforms to prescription drug prices supposedly killing Medicare. But the whole effort had a bland, perfunctory feel to it ― this was nothing like the emotional outbursts during the final days of debate over the Affordable Care Act.
It was actually hard to find coverage of the legislation at outlets like FoxNews.com and Breitbart, at least based on my spot checks over the weekend.
In the end, the bill passed with relatively little drama on Sunday afternoon, leaving Democrats to celebrate and Republicans to make a hasty exit for the airports, so they could get a start on the August recess. (Here’s the full HuffPost writeup, if you missed it, and here’s Chris D’Angelo’s explainer on the all-important climate provisions.)
The timing may help explain why the GOP response was so lethargic. With temperatures in the 90s and likely to approach 100 in the coming days, nobody wanted to stay in Washington. But I think the listless final pushback on Democratic legislation was also emblematic of the GOP’s posture throughout this debate, going back to when President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders first laid out their legislative agenda early last year.
Remember, those early proposals were a lot more ambitious than what Democrats ultimately passed. “Build Back Better,” as they used to call it, included not just major action on climate and health care but also new entitlements for child care and home care, not to mention what would have arguably been the biggest anti-poverty initiatives in decades. But Republicans never attacked these plans as vigorously as they went after previous Democratic initiatives.
So what gives? Why have Republicans offered such weak resistance to this sweeping, potentially historic piece of Democratic legislation? A few theories come to mind ― including one that may say a lot about the state of the Republican Party, now that it’s been fully Trumpified.
The Legislation’s Design Made It Harder To Attack
The first theory is that the Democrats just did an unusually good job of limiting their agenda to popular, hard-to-attack initiatives. That’s especially true for the policies that were left at the end of the process, after Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) had extracted their concessions.
For their climate agenda, Democrats had abandoned the Obama-era approach of trying to tax carbon emissions, opting instead to make clean energy more attractive by subsidizing it ― in effect, throwing money at industries and consumers who opt for climate-friendly options, rather than penalizing those who don’t. “The single biggest reason the bill went down in 2010 is that it relied too much on sticks,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told HuffPost, referring to a “cap-and-trade” proposal that passed the House but never got through the Senate. (Slate’s Jordan Weissmann has an excellent explainer on this shift if you want to read more.)
For their health care agenda, Democrats stuck to making prescriptions cheaper by lowering out-of-pocket costs for seniors and giving the federal government new leverage to bring down prices. If the polls are right, these are literally some of the most popular policies in politics today, with especially strong appeal to a voting bloc (older white voters) that Republicans desperately need to keep.
These plans are all light on the pain and heavy on the gain, except for large corporations (whose taxes would go up) and the drug industry (whose revenue would go down). Politically, those are not the easiest groups for Republicans to defend, at least publicly.
Another likely reason Republicans never mounted much of a counteroffensive is that the Democratic legislation was so many different things for much of its existence.
This cut both ways, obviously. For most of last year and much of this year, Biden and Democratic leaders struggled to make their case to the public, and I’ve always thought a big reason was that they couldn’t break through the noise to tell voters what they wanted to do.
But looking back, it seems like Republicans ran into a similar problem: They couldn’t focus public attention on any one part of the legislation because there was so much in it.
The GOP’s Transformation Left It Ill-Equipped To Argue
The third theory, and the one that might have the most long-term implications, is that the GOP has lost its ability to engage on bread-and-butter policy questions ― in part because it just doesn’t seem that interested anymore.
There was a time when Republicans had big designs for entitlements, for example, including not just Medicare and Medicaid but also Social Security. They also had a comprehensive vision for scaling back regulations and rewriting the tax code.
They were great plans or terrible plans or something in between, depending on your perspective, but they were real. And while they frequently got less emphasis than the arguments focusing on race, gender or (more recently) sexual identity, they remained a core and much-discussed part of the GOP brand.
Those policy proposals still exist, and you can certainly find members of the greater conservative universe who care passionately about them. But the plans don’t get nearly the attention they once did. And while a party’s interest in policy is a difficult thing to measure objectively, one telltale sign of how much things have changed is the GOP platform from the 2020 campaign. There wasn’t one, for the first time in modern history.
That absence of a platform had a lot to do with the GOP’s presidential nominee ― i.e., incumbent Donald Trump ― who famously had no interest in the substance of governing. And it’s hard not to think his takeover of the party is a big factor in the atrophy of the GOP’s policy mind. Developing substantive positions and then promoting them takes patience, negotiation and a lot of serious intellectual work. Suffice to say these are not the hallmarks of Trump or his most devoted cheerleaders, especially in the press.
GOP Ideas On Economy, Social Welfare Remain Unpopular
Of course, one reason Trump didn’t talk a lot about policy is that he understood instinctively how wildly unpopular many core GOP ideas are.
People forget that he ran in the 2016 primaries as a different kind of Republican, one committed to protecting Medicare and Social Security ― and that his vow to repeal “Obamacare” came with a promise of great health care for everybody, which is not anywhere close to what GOP repeal schemes actually offered. Today, Republicans mostly know better than brag about their designs for curtailing popular spending programs. When the occasional conservative gives it a shot, as Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) did earlier this year, party leaders quickly distance themselves from it.
To be clear, there are some substantive issues that still attract intense interest from Trumpified Republicans ― anything connected to immigration, for starters, as well as the supposed left-wing assault on patriotism and Christian values, especially in schools.
But whatever the merits and popularity of conservative positions on these questions, they have very little to do with helping seniors pay for their drugs or dealing with the threat of a warming planet. And so when the conversation is about those topics, as it has been when Democrats were putting together legislation for the past 16 months, Republicans simply haven’t had a lot to say.
Whether this ultimately helps or hurts Republicans politically remains to be seen. Ignoring debates about economic, environmental and health policy in order to focus on grievances with leftists and their allies in the media and intellectual elite might turn out to be a winning long-term strategy for the GOP.
But that approach to governing cedes an awful lot of intellectual territory to liberals. That seems bad for conservatives. It also makes for a less vibrant debate. That seems bad for everybody.