What has conservatism conserved?
This is a question asked with earnest impatience by many of Donald Trump’s enthusiastic supporters. It is raised by both the archaic white nationalist who views racism as transgressive enough to constitute a youthful rebellion, and by burgeoning opinion writers who fancy themselves a respectable sort. It is whispered by patriots who fear for the future of the republic they love and by sycophants for whom the Constitution itself is a barrier to the enlightened despotism they believe would remedy America’s ills.
Trump has made no secret of his antipathy toward conservatism and the politicians who speak in its name. The Republican nominee is now in open warfare with one of the GOP’s most popular figures, House Speaker Paul Ryan, calling him “a man who doesn’t know how to win.” Trump supporters will nod their heads to this assertion. That view is dogma on the anti-establishmentarian right. This pique led to the nomination of an unqualified presidential nominee who will badly lose a winnable race for the White House. Now, out of spite, those same people who sacrificed the presidency are contemplating the sacrifice of the GOP’s majorities. Because they’ve convinced themselves that Republicans like Ryan don’t “know how to win,” they believe they’re not forfeiting much. They’re dead wrong.
In the Obama era, two successive midterm wave elections resulted in Republicans enjoying their largest congressional majorities in over half a century. By January 2015, the GOP commanded 31 governorships, 32 lieutenant governorships, 29 secretariats of state, and 68 of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers. Republicans controlled all levers of government in 23 states. The Democratic Party’s farm team, from which it draws talent up to the majors, has been decimated. The average age of Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives is 75. For Republicans, it’s 48. What’s more, these electoral victories occurred as the Republican Party transformed into an objectively more conservative party. Analysts who said that the Democratic coalition that gave Barack Obama the White House, Congressional majorities, and 62 legislative chambers in 2008 would secure enduring Democratic majorities for a generation have since recanted.
The Republicans who pursued and won these offices erred in a significant way. They presumed electoral victories alone would satisfy their frustrated supporters. The GOP in the Obama years failed to communicate to its voters what it could achieve, preferring instead to focus on the chambers it could win. That’s a tragedy, because the party has achieved quite a lot.
As National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke observed, the temptation to answer conservatism’s critics with a review of the ideology’s victories over the last 40 years is strong. From defeating Soviet communism over the objections of those devoted to the status quo, to the reformation of American welfare programs, to the triumph over free trade over protectionism, to the revitalization of First and Second Amendment freedoms; the list is a long one. The Trumpian right’s gripe, however, is with the GOP in the Obama era, which they regard as a rubber stamp for the Democratic Party’s agenda (though ask a Democrat about how compliant the congressional GOP has been, and you’ll get an earful). Even in the last eight years, Republican lawmakers have racked up many accomplishments for which they can be proud.
At the state level, more than half of the Union is now right-to-work, including states with ingrained organized labor cultures like Michigan and Wisconsin. These victories came at the cost of considerable political conflict, which the left lost decisively. Following the 2010 tea party wave and intensifying after 2014, Republican-led states began the process of overhauling education, reforming and disempowering teachers unions, and localizing the curriculum. Conservative attorneys general have undertaken sentencing and criminal justice reform, many with the support of their state legislatures, which will save taxpayers billions and make it easier for non-violent offenders to reenter the labor force.
Republicans in Congress have effectively blocked Barack Obama’s agenda since 2011. They have obstructed punitive taxes on businesses that seek reduced labor and materials costs overseas. They stopped Obama’s DREAM Act, which offered citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. House Republicans sued the Obama administration over its extraconstitutional “executive actions” deferring deportation status to millions of illegal immigrants—and won. They’ve thwarted a slew of new gun control measures. They prevented passage of a series of new stimulus bills Barack Obama labeled “jobs” proposals even after conceding “shovel ready” was a fantasy. They’ve prevented more green kickback schemes, like Solyndra and Sapphire Energy. By 2009, federal spending had expanded by around 6 percent every year for nearly 30 years. That ended in 2011. Since the tea party GOP retook the House, federal spending has grown by only 1.3 percent annually.
And what has the GOP passed? A lot. By July of 2016, the Republican-led Senate set a record for passing more legislation through that chamber that became law than at any point since 1990. After retaking both chambers, the congressional GOP passed an Obamacare repeal bill and forced Barack Obama to veto it. The president now concedes that his signature reform law is deeply flawed and needs a major overhaul—a concession that Republicans fought for six years to win. The GOP-led Congress started passing budgets again in 2015, rather than simply relying on continuing resolutions to fund the government. The GOP passed a bill to keep Guantanamo Bay open, despite Obama’s veto threat. The president blinked. They’ve passed anti-Net Neutrality legislation, expanded funding for the military, the de-funding of Planned Parenthood, and new measures to vet refugees fleeing war in the Middle East, none of which Obama allowed pass into law.
In the Obama era, Supreme Court cases like McCutcheon v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC have expanded the freedom of political speech. The Supreme Court has put the brakes on bureaucrats in regulatory agencies like the EPA, which seek to expand the power of the executive branch through fiat. By unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled Obama had overstepped his appointment authority in National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) v. Noel Canning. The Court found that states do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment when they bar discrimination in the university admissions processes in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. held that the Affordable Care Act’s demand that employers provide access to birth control represented an attack on religious liberty.
The preponderance of evidence indicates that the GOP has held the line against the kind of reckless progressivism that Democrats pursued in 2009 to 2011. The right has even made some gains under this president. To contend otherwise is willfully deceptive.
Conservatives were led astray in 2016. They fell prey to a narrative of victimhood—a persecution complex that made Donald Trump possible. Trump will lose, but, despite his best efforts, he may not succeed in taking the GOP’s congressional majorities with him. With luck, those self-described conservative voices peddling a malicious myth of Republican complicity with Obama will be exposed and discredited. There is still time to save the Republican Party from the decimation they have joined with Democrats in wishing upon it.