After the 2016 election, the leadership of the Republican Party could finally feel that they were on the path to real legislative triumph. The Party controlled the House of Representative and the Senate. They finally had a President in the White House. It was true that Donald Trump had almost no history as a Republican and he had attacked his fellow Republicans all during the campaign. Still, the hated Obama was gone. The leadership of the Party was willing to bet that the new president could be “controlled”.

Now, less than a year later, it’s clear that things are not working out. For the new majority to have been successful Donald Trump and his bureaucracy in the White House would have had to work with (guide and prod), the Republican majority a mile and a half away in the Capitol. That has not happened partly because Donald Trump, who is more forceful than intelligent, simply did not understand the government he had been elected to head. And, he really didn’t understand or care about the issues that both moved and divided the Republican majorities over in the capitol building.

Donald Trump really seems to have believed that his job would be sitting in front of television cameras signing things. The major function of the Republican majorities over in the Capitol would be to provide things for him to sign. Had the Republicans in the Congress been truly united or had the issues been as simple as the new president envisioned, they could have provided some things for him to approve. They were not united. And, the issues were not simple.

To understand why the Republican House majority is not united it would be helpful to understand how all those Congressmen get there. Nearly all those 435 people in the House run in primaries (party elections) in the August three months before each general election every other November. The candidates who want to run as Republicans (or as Democrats) organize their own campaigns with their own campaign workers. Each party has to take the winner of those primaries as its candidate even if the party actives cringe at the voters’ “choice”. The truth is that only a tiny percentage of the eligible voters vote in August (they often are enjoying their summer vacations). The few who do vote are the most motivated. For Republicans the most motivated tend to be very conservative (For Democrats the most motivated are often the most liberal.). Prospective candidates know who will vote. So, the kind of moderates who could compromise and really get things done don’t bother to run.

Since Republican Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1968, when the Republicans began their takeover of the white South, the primary system has moved the Republicans to be ever more conservative. That has happened because elected Republicans are terrified of being challenged “on the right”. Someone even more conservative than the current office holder will arouse radically conservative voters who will storm the primary and knock the office holder off. So, Republicans in office desperately try to be as conservative as possible even if that hurts their conservative supporters. They certainly are not profiles in courage but it is hard to leave all that marble and go back home.

For those who have been visiting the planet Venus for the last fifteen years, “conservative” has a new meaning. The national Republican Party (as opposed to many good hearted Republicans back home) has become a kind of church with shared beliefs that candidates must publicly accept if they are to run for office. To run for Congress, members must be “suspicious” of science. They must argue that global warming is a hoax, and, that if it does exist (melting glaciers are hard to deny), fossil fuels can’t be contributing to it. Conservatives must view Obamacare as an unmitigated evil despite the fact that in those poorer, more rural, districts their constituents could benefit the most. They must pretend to believe (despite all the evidence to the contrary), that tax cuts for the rich will increase employment. They often believe that the federal government has somehow become their enemy. There is a problem there: With moderates ineligible and with the primaries giving the advantage to the most conservative, many people who do run often really do believe all these things! For too many, the real goal in going to Washington is not benefit the folks back home but to find ways to make the government less effective.

Republican members are captives. In theory, once elected, they should come to Washington, get their offices organized (a real challenge for many), and get to work to find real solutions to real problems for their constituents. In practice, they can do almost nothing for those people back home without risking a primary challenge in the next election from someone even more radically conservative than themselves. The most anti-government conservatives have banded together as the Freedom Caucus. The Freedom Caucus’s forty members or so (some are secret members so it is hard to be exact), hold Speaker Paul Ryan and the rest of leadership hostage. As a result, the House, now in October, is finally struggling to create a budget bill that was due April 15. And, thanks to the divided Republicans all the great talk about tax reform will come to nothing. There will be no tax reform!

There are no easy answers here. The most logical answer would be for the parties to reform the primary system and to choose candidates in a way which reflects actual majority opinion of the leadership and of party members. Conservatives would certainly resist. It also would be helpful if the voters in general elections would simply refuse to support candidates who did not actually serve their interests. If candidates knew that a 66th or 67th vote on Obamacare would guarantee their defeat, they would “get religion” fast. As it is now, Republicans in the House block each other from getting anything done with no apparent penalty. The voters back home will probably reelect them anyway. The Democrats stand helplessly by and can do nothing. The President down the street will not be helpful.

The Founders back in that Constitutional Convention in 1787 viewed the government they were creating as an experiment. That experiment is being tested. Our population is certainly more prosperous and better educated than the public was then. The economy at the moment is not doing badly. The problem for the Republican Party is that too many national candidates have forgotten what the purpose of a major political party in a democracy is. It should be as inclusive as possible in order to support effective candidates, gain a majority, and then be able to govern for the benefit of all the citizens. It is not to try and create a “pure” minority. It is not to try to make the government fail. It is not to simply do nothing for the folks back home. But to paraphrase Travis Tritt in that old country song, “Sometimes they forget”.

H.J. Rishel


Retired political science professor of 40+ years. Educated at Olivet, UofM, MSU, Northwestern, & Harvard. Hoping to make politics a fun & exciting topic for all