The Rushmore Report: Why Republicans Can’t Govern

You might think that securing the White House, Senate, House of Representatives, and a majority of seats on the Supreme Court would enable a party to practically dictate laws and policy. But so far, unified government hasn’t worked out too well for Republicans. The GOP controls it all – but has no major legislative accomplishments to show for it. So let’s tackle the obvious question. Why can’t Republicans govern?

The U.S. system is designed to slow down and complicate attempts at change, so parties in charge must learn to navigate their way. What makes this so hard? There are several things that a majority party needs in order to convert political victories into legislative ones, and the GOP doesn’t have them.

1. A prioritized agenda

This one seems obvious but can be deceptively difficult. Research shows that agenda control is a key source of power for the majority party in Congress. For a party to effectively implement an agenda, it has to agree on a) what that agenda is, and b) how that agenda should be prioritized. The first part isn’t a given; Republicans largely support lower taxes, for instance, but – as the recent healthcare debate showed – they are less unified on health care policy. Even when there is agreement on the issues, parties must also decide on which ones to focus. The President is short on details to his policies, and there is much diversity within the Republican Party. A prioritized agenda has yet to emerge.

2. Public support

Whatever agenda emerges, it helps a lot if it has public support. Public opinion doesn’t always direct policy, of course. But members of Congress tend to be motivated by an interest in reelection, and don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of a national debate.

The GOP is finding this out the hard way. Some of the few core positions that have been staked out by Republicans in Congress – such as bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act – have proven very unpopular. Trump also ran into this problem with the Russian sanctions bill: he opposed it, but widespread public support translated into veto-proof majorities in Congress.

In simple terms, President Trump won the Electoral College, but not the popular vote. Until he turns his low poll numbers around, it will be hard to garner much unified support behind his agenda.

3. A way to address internal divisions

Even with a governing agenda and public support, there will be disagreements over specifics, clashes between factions and disputes over resource allocation. Institutions can help resolve these disputes – especially organizational rules in Congress that create incentives for compromise.

An opposition party has the luxury of a unifying objective – pointing out the shortcomings of the majority. As the musical Hamilton tells us, “Governing is harder.”

About the Author

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties, and political rhetoric. She is the author of Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate. 

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