Donald Trump is not going to be the next nominee of the Republican party. The flamboyant businessman has made billions in real estate, but politics is another matter. He manifestly lacks the temperament to be president, and his conversion to the Republican party is of recent vintage. As the field narrows, and voters look closely at the other candidates, Trump will fade.
Still, the Trump surge should remind Republican politicians of a truth they may prefer to forget: Their voters do not like them anymore. Tune out Trump’s bombast and what’s left is a simple, compelling message to the Republican base: The rest of your party has been bought and paid for, but I’m my own man, and I’ll actually represent you.
All else being equal, it is surprising this message should resonate. For a party that does not control the White House, the GOP is in incredibly strong shape. Tallying up the state legislative, gubernatorial, and congressional seats, Republicans are as strong as they have been since the 1920s. History suggests that the GOP should win the White House, too: The Democrats are going for a historically rare third consecutive term; the incumbent president’s approval is weak; and their presumptive nominee has acute ethical problems.
Yet the Republican party’s approval rating is abysmal, hovering in the mid-30s. A party only hits such a low when its own supporters are disenchanted with it. The polling weakness squares with what one gleans listening to talk radio and reading right-wing websites. There is widespread distrust of the GOP among the most energetic and engaged conservatives.
And why should they trust this party? To win majorities in 2010 and 2014, congressional Republicans grossly overstated what they could accomplish so long as Barack Obama is president. Before the 2010 midterm, Mike Pence, at the time chairman of the House Republican Caucus, told Sean Hannity:
What I’ve said is there will be no compromise on ending this era of runaway spending, deficits, and debt. No compromise on repealing Obamacare lock, stock, and barrel. No compromise on defending the broad mainstream values of the American people in the way we spend the people’s money at home and abroad. On issues that go straight to principle and straight to the concern the American people have on spending and taxes and values, there’ll be no compromise.
But, of course, there has been “compromise” on Obamacare. There had to be! Ours is not a parliamentary system, but a separation-of-powers regime in which the president retains substantial authority to block legislative action. Suggesting otherwise to voters, as Pence (and other senior Republicans) did, courts disenchantment.
Ditto the Senate. When, during the 2012 campaign, it looked like Republicans would take the upper chamber, Mitch McConnell suggested that Obamacare could be repealed through the budget reconciliation process, which requires just 51 votes. “The chief justice said it’s a tax. Taxes are clearly what we call reconcilable. That’s the kind of measure that can be pursued with 51 votes in the Senate,” he said. “If I’m the leader of the majority next year, I commit to the American people that the repeal of Obamacare will be job one.” Yet last year McConnell argued that it would take a filibuster-proof Senate majority to undo Obamacare.
Since 2010, the actions of congressional Republicans have mostly fallen shy of campaign promises. From a short-term perspective, this may have been necessary. It is hard to mobilize your voters by saying, “Vote for me to stop the president from doing worse.” It is better to say, “Vote for me to roll back the president’s actions.” But over time this rhetorical overreach has facilitated a climate of distrust. Republican voters increasingly believe that their leaders, even if they had complete control of government, would not do half of what they promise on the campaign trail.
The Republican party took control of Congress in 1994, but perhaps it is better to say that the opposite is true. Congress by that point was wholly immersed in what political scientist Theodore Lowi called “interest-group liberalism”: the systematic expansion of government at the behest of the interest groups that dominate the political process. For good-government conservatives, this system is doubly offensive because it expands government in a partial and unfair way.