The problem(s) with the Republicans’ new ‘Commitment to America’

After my book on Republicans becoming a post-policy part came out, there was one core question I heard quite a bit: Why, exactly, did the GOP abandon its role as a traditional governing party?

To simplify matters a bit, I think there are three elements to the answer. The first is that Republicans don’t want to govern because they’re too often hostile toward government. As Neil Irwin put it a few years ago, “If you make a career opposing even the basic work of making the government run, it’s hard to pivot to writing major legislation.”

The second is that GOP officials often don’t see the point of engaging in the rigors of real policymaking. Reading policy analyses, attending hearings, negotiating with rivals and stakeholders, and thinking through the consequences of policy decisions requires countless hours of tiresome and unglamorous work. Peddling poll-tested, base-motivating, half-baked, hashtag-ready talking points, on the other hand, is painless, ideologically satisfying, and often rewarded by voters.

But the third piece of the puzzle is a detail that tends to leave Republicans uncomfortable: They know that many of the party’s core ideas are deeply unpopular. The more they use the levers of power to pursue their goals, the more they risk an electoral backlash from voters who have no use for the GOP’s regressive beliefs.

It was this third point that came to mind this morning as House Republican leaders, more than six years after the party last presented the public with a platform, unveiled a long-awaited blueprint of the GOP’s priorities. As The Washington Post reported, it’s vague by design:

The conference entered this week readying to promote their “Commitment to America” pledge, a one-page memo of principles unveiled to members Thursday that GOP leaders hope will persuade voters to hand them control of the House, as well serve as the guiding touchstone that holds the group together when legislative divisions inevitably emerge. But even that document is purposely short on policy specifics….

The Post’s report noted that the ambiguities in the party’s one-page plan reflects internal divisions: Republicans don’t agree among themselves on key provisions, so leaders had to keep the document vague.

While that’s no doubt true, it’s just as notable that GOP lawmakers also had a related incentive to avoid governing specifics: If they elaborated, they’d lose.

The “Commitment to America” outline, for example, assures voters that Republicans will “protect the lives of unborn children.” How? Perhaps by pursuing some kind of national abortion ban? They did not — and more to the point, would not — include any details, well aware of the fact that most Americans support reproductive rights and rejected the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

GOP lawmakers also apparently intend to “save and strengthen” Social Security and Medicare. I’m sure that fared well in the party’s focus groups, but what does it mean? Will the social insurance programs be “saved and strengthened” by way of benefit cuts? Republicans don’t want to talk about it — because if they did, a whole lot of mainstream voters would run the other way.

The “Commitment to America” outline also lets us know that a far-right House GOP majority would “curb wasteful government spending,” without mentioning what spending the party considers “wasteful.” This was coupled with a promise of “pro-growth” tax policies, without any explanation of what that might entail or how many more breaks the party intends to throw at millionaires and billionaires.

As part of the same pitch, Republican leaders told the public today, “[A]fter more than a year of crushing inflation, Democrats still have no plan to solve it.” Indifferent to the irony, the GOP’s own plan references some bumper-sticker-style slogans, but it does not include a plan to address inflation.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer spoke this morning at the United Steelworkers Headquarters in Pittsburgh and said, in reference to his Republican rivals’ pitch, “Their new platform, which isn’t frankly new, is long on slogans and short on details. That’s because the true details of Republicans’ agenda are too frightening for most American voters.”

The Maryland Democrat’s criticisms resonated because he’s right.