Republicans have a problem: To understand why, it is useful to know that although our two major political parties have official organizations (mandated by state election laws in most states), those organizations often barely function. Particularly if there is one dominant party in a state, the minority party’s organization may, between elections, hardly exist at all.
The two major parties don’t really pick their candidates. People, as individuals, run in primaries (party elections) heavily administered by the states (In an earlier day the states had to step in because when the parties ran the primaries themselves there was so much cheating.). The parties, at the local, state, and the national level, have to take the candidates who have won in all those primaries. That means that the parties have no way of assuring that their candidates are even competent to hold the offices, nor can they control what they do once there. That means that the candidates in office really become a kind of party on their own, independent of their party’s weak organization back home.
With that in mind, think about the Republicans: At the local level, Republicans do just fine. They often dominate in county and township offices and there is no reason why they should not. The functions they perform are relatively straight forward. The public is concerned about government intrusion and about costs and most Republican candidates for those offices share their concerns.
At the state and at the federal level things get more complicated and they get more complicated partly because of the primaries. In Republican primaries, the small percentage of eligible people who vote tend to be far more conservative (and in some areas more fundamentally religious) than average Republicans. Candidates who encourage their angers and anxieties can do really well.
Extremely conservative candidates recognize an opportunity and get themselves on primary ballots. When they do, the more traditional professionally prepared candidates, rather than pander to those very conservative voters, tend to avoid running. Once in office those very conservative candidates are often simply in over their heads. They arrive in Lansing or in Tallahassee or in Washington D.C., with no understanding of the detail they will need to know to really function. With no depth, they float.
In the years between Franklin Roosevelt’s taking office in 1933, and Ronald Reagan’s taking office in 1981, the Republicans had a majority in the House for only four years. They survived by working with the majority, being strong on foreign policy, and being competent. They sold themselves as the party of competence. There was little that Republicans wanted to do for individual voters but they could argue that their goal was to keep government out of the voters’ way. They would fight communism and keep the people free.
Therein lies the current Republican challenge. Donald Trump, the penultimate product of the primary system, came to power in 2017, knowing almost nothing about the government he was elected to lead. At his inauguration probably everybody on that vast platform (except for some of the young people in the bands and choirs) knew more about the government than he did. In the two years since, he appears not to have the interest or the attention span to have gained a detailed understanding of any government program.
In the meantime, the Republicans in Congress are doing nothing. There have been almost no votes taken in the Senate this year on anything. In the House the newly empowered Democrats have passed bill after bill. Those bills are simply never really considered by the Senate Republican majority which at this point has no program of its own. The public can get only what small benefits the Democrats can squeeze past the Republicans.
There are real problems that the country needs to deal with. There are certainly Republicans who would like to help. They know that they need to offer something beyond huge deficits and ever greater military spending. They are trapped behind House and Senate leadership trying to listen for the uncertain trumpet in the White House. They are also hindered now by too many elected Republican members who are permanently out of their depth.
Right now the Republican Party has clearly lost its way. They probably are not going to again be functional until the current administration has passed. Republicans were the party of competent administration. That is going to be difficult to return to, but return to it they should. They were successful earlier because, in defeat, they carved themselves a role as the competent opposition. It is going to take some time but, returning to being the party of competent administration is a worthwhile goal. Then, either winning or losing they can, at long last, once more play a role in a functioning party system.