Election 2022

Maybe Republicans Need a Policy Agenda After All?

The GOP has hit the dead end of Trump-style personality-cult populism. It's time to try having ideas.


One of the more illustrative post-election reactions on the political right came from Fox News' Jesse Watters on Wednesday afternoon—as it became apparent that conservatives' anticipated "red wave" had failed to materialize in the previous day's midterm elections.

"There's just not the hatred for Joe Biden that there is for Barack Obama and for the Clintons," Watters complained on the air. "There's not a 'hate Biden' vote that's out there…. People just don't feel the same passion."

It's true. President Joe Biden has many negative qualities. He's sleepy. He's a serial fabulist and a lifetime D.C. creature. He's blatantly overstepped his authority in several ways during the past two years. Despite all that, one thing he's not is hateable. 

Indeed, exit polls show that midterm voters who held a negative opinion of Biden actually broke slightly toward Democrats.

That's not supposed to happen, and it may have sunk Republicans who had banked on anti-Biden sentiment to power their expected red wave. The election turned out to be a choice, not a referendum, and Republicans simply failed to give enough voters a sufficient reason to choose their side—probably in large part because of how they've been blinded in recent years by the politics of personality.

In fact, if you want to trace the roots of Tuesday's debacle for the GOP, a good place to start would be the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. That's where the top officials in GOP politics decided to dispense with the traditional drafting of a platform—the document that outlines the ideals and policy goals for which the party stands—in favor of a statement pledging allegiance to then-President Donald Trump.

It was, in essence, a codification of the evolution that the party had undergone since Trump descended from a Fifth Avenue escalator to declare his candidacy five years earlier. Personality had fully triumphed over policy.

Even before Tuesday, there were clear signals about the limits of that approach. Trump was an unpopular president who'd lost both chambers of Congress during his one term in office. His chaotic response to losing the 2020 presidential election likely cost Republicans control of the Senate for the past two years.

After Tuesday, there can be no more debate about the diminishing returns of that approach. Even in places where Trump's favored candidates won—like in Ohio, where J.D. Vance was elected senator—they underperformed non-Trump candidates. Elsewhere, personality-first and policy-poor candidates in Trump's mold, like Arizona's Senate hopeful Blake Masters, flopped hard.

This transition within Republican politics has had consequences that go beyond the results of elections. As the GOP elevated Trump and his style of politics, the party turned its back on—or actively discarded—prominent figures who were more interested in crafting conservative policies than owning libs.

Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is probably the quintessential example of that changeover. Ryan was a GOP backbencher who quickly rose to prominence because of a laserlike focus on policy—specifically fiscal policy. Ryan's tenure as Speaker was an utter failure, but what's more telling than anything is his decision to simply walk away from it all at an age when most politicians are still getting going. Like Jeff Flake, Mark Sanford, Justin Amash, and other figures who'd played important roles in the GOP's small-government revolution of the early 2010s, Ryan saw where the GOP was headed and walked away.

On Wednesday, he popped up again. "I think Donald Trump gives us problems politically," Ryan told WISN-12 in Milwaukee. "I think we just have some Trump hangover. I think he's a drag on our offices and our races."

To be fair, there are some conservatives determined to flesh out the Trumpification of the GOP into something slightly less vapid. The emergence of the "New Right," as Reason's Stephanie Slade has explored in-depth, is based on a will-to-power conception of conservatism: the demand that Republicans use state coercion to reward their friends and punish their enemies. It is an attempt to turn Trump's brash, transactional understanding of politics (and blatant disregard for the rule of law) into something resembling official policy.

It is a platform of sorts but one that's barely a half-step removed from what the GOP adopted in 2020: Whatever our guy wants, that's the law.

If you dig a little below the surface, this New Right agenda usually collapses into something far less impressive than supporters make it sound. During the height of his tantrum about drag queen story hour in the spring of 2019, conservative columnist and leading New Right intellectual Sohrab Ahmari was asked what he'd like to see the government actually do about this supposed problem. His answer, as Reason's Peter Suderman wrote at the time, was to have Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) hold a congressional hearing "on what's happening in our libraries." C'mon.

That's not to diminish the potential threat of will-to-power conservatism on the political right—but it serves to highlight one reason why the movement is struggling to connect with voters. Trumpism without Trump is still an empty vessel, no matter how many half-baked us-vs.-them culture war tropes the Hawleys and Masters and Ahmaris of the world try to stuff into it.

After the midterms, Republicans have a choice to make. "We can govern in the people's interest or make a lot of pointless noise," Sen. Mitt Romney (R–Utah) wrote Friday in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, where he outlined some actual policies that Republicans could pursue—including reducing spending, expanding immigration, and cutting tariffs—to combat inflation, which voters said was their top priority. Those are good places to start.

Sometimes, having no ideas of your own can work as a campaign strategy, of course. Trump got elected largely because Hilary Clinton was a historically terrible candidate who people were excited to vote against. But Republicans seem to have spent the past six years misreading all those anti-Clinton votes as pro-Trump votes. They have pivoted their entire political movement around that misunderstanding. And this week, they got what they deserved for that mistake.

Watters, it turns out, is pretty much exactly right. Without a hateable foil to run against, Trumpism doesn't work as a campaign strategy. It's time for Republicans to rediscover the value of actually having ideas.