Republicans Overpromised (And Some Know It)

Republican leader Paul Ryan urges lawmakers to stop making promises they know they can’t keep.

Republican House speaker Paul Ryan gives a speech, December 17, 2015
Republican House speaker Paul Ryan gives a speech, December 17, 2015 (Facebook/Speaker Paul Ryan)

Joshua Green suggests at Bloomberg Politics that there may be a realignment going on inside the Republican Party. Mostly working-class voters are fed up with the broken promises of a Washington “establishment,” he argues, and rallying behind presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump who each in their own way promise to radically shake up the system.

Cruz and Trump between them command the support of just one in two Republicans nationwide, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls. Neither man is likely to win the presidential nomination, let alone the presidency.

In the end, more reasonable, middle-class voters will almost certainly decide the general election and probably the Republican nominating contest as well. They always have.

But their control is slipping.


Mainstream Republicans, as we argued last year, have themselves to blame. They are the ones who for years have nurtured an anti-establishment sentiment that is now turning on them.

Jonathan Bernstein has argued at Bloomberg View that since the days of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, Republican leaders have told voters to trust in easy solutions and believe that the normal frustrations of politics are the product of villains, collaborators and fellow travelers.

And, of course, they succeeded in convincing many Republican voters that any conservative politician who engages in the norms of democratic compromise is a traitor to the cause.

Such “traitors” have largely been purged from the House of Representatives. Green points out that almost 60 percent of the lower chamber’s Republicans were elected in 2010 or after.

They’ve radicalized their party in Congress and driven out its establishment-minded speaker, John Boehner.

By some measure, the Republican conference is more right-wing than it has ever been.

But Boehner’s successor, Paul Ryan, is starting to take a stand against the purists in his party and warning others not to make promises Republicans can’t keep.

Empty promises

The Washington Post reports that Ryan, a strong fiscal conservative from Wisconsin who was the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate in 2012, called on his members this week not to squabble over tactics.

“And don’t impugn people’s motives,” he said in a speech that could easily be read as a rebuke to Cruz, the purist faction’s favorite for the presidential nomination, who once compared fellow legislators to Nazi appeasers for refusing to shut down the federal government in a futile attempt to overturn President Barack Obama’s health reforms.

Ryan urged Republicans to be straight with voters. “We can’t promise that we can repeal Obamacare when a guy with the last name Obama is president,” he said. “All that does is set us up for failure and disappointment and recriminations.”

When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House.

Yet that is what many Republicans have been doing for years.

When reality sets in

Megan McArdle argues at Bloomberg View that many conservatives come to Washington with a certain fire in their bellies only to settle down into decade-long careers with something more like a night light.

Grand promises are scaled back to modest tax credits and budgets that grow government spending at .8 percent a year, instead of the 1.6 percent that Democrats demand.

What critics miss, though, she writes, is that such lawmakers have “not given in to the siren song of intimate policy briefings and Georgetown cocktail parties.” They have surrendered to something even more formidable, she says: reality.

McArdle sees two problems.

The first is that voters have too high expectations. They want Washington to grow the economy — “which no one in Washington actually knows how to do” — and cut taxes yet keep spending money on the programs they like.

Most lawmakers quickly find that such conflicting expectations are impossible to meet. But rather than go back to their constituents and say so, their answer — as McArdle puts it — is too often, “Yup, I’ll get right on that,” before finding innovative ways to ignore them.

The second is that no one ever gets 100 percent of what they want.

There are a lot of people in the country and most of them don’t care about what you want. To get money spent or unspent, taxes raised or lowered, you have to give those people something they do want. The result is an ugly mess with little resemblance to the original plan.

Again, it are Republican lawmakers who seem most reluctant to accept this, which — as Ryan said — only sets their supporters up for failure or disappointment in the end.

Clarion call

Will Republicans heed Ryan’s clarion call? Green wonders.

Will voters nominate Cruz or Trump, each of whom party insiders believe could suffer a loss that would rival Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in the 1964 election? Will the party break apart if they do? Or will [Marco] Rubio or some other establishment-friendly alternative manage to harness this anger and prevail? And what then?

Unless Republicans tone down their rhetoric and lower their voters’ expectations of what they can accomplish, the nomination of an “establishment” candidate for president can only confirm suspicions on the right that there is such a thing as a defeatist Republican cabal determined to keep true conservatives out of power.

Republicans must slay the monster they have themselves created. Or it will only grow bigger and uglier.

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