Democratic control of the House and Republican gains in the Senate could mean very little legislative progress for the next two years. This gridlock must be seen by Republicans as an opportunity to build a national consensus around a specific policy agenda designed to bring together a majority of the American people. The President has proven that policy agenda can succeed. He proved that in 2016 and he proved it again in the Senate races last night and the House races where he engaged. The task at hand for Republicans over the next two years is to earn back the trust of the American people by rallying the country to the specifics of this agenda.
Democrats will obsess over investigations, impeachment and will likely overreach. It will be tempting for Republicans to engage only in political warfare with Democrats. While it is important to fight back against overreach, it would be a missed opportunity to not work to build consensus around this agenda.
Success in this project will produce a durable governing coalition and a mandate for action in 2020. To determine the contents of the agenda, we must learn from 2016. It should be focused on American workers, American heritage, families and the middle class.
Conservatism and the Trump Agenda
The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency in 2016 was a wake-up call for the ruling class in Washington, D.C. as much as it was for Republican lawmakers. Running as a political outsider on a platform of “America First,” candidate Trump condemned corrupt American politicians, the consolidation of wealth in Washington, D.C. suburbs, the coastal elite contempt for the cultural values of rural communities, and the federal government’s regulatory war against blue-collar industries in the rust belt, among other issues.
In his inauguration speech, President-elect Donald Trump captured the essence of his campaign and the sentiment of those who voted for him:
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
By merging populistic ideas with conservative ones, Trump put together a new winning coalition of “the forgotten men and women of our country” who elected him President. Many of these forgotten Americans live in small towns and rust belt cities. They have watched businesses and jobs move overseas as a result of excessive federal regulation, high taxes, and unfair trade practices from unfriendly countries. They have seen paychecks turned into welfare checks. They have seen their once thriving communities overwhelmed by drugs and violence. Their traditional values have been vilified by Hollywood, the media, big business, and coastal elitists. They are the “second-grade teacher and the second shift worker.” They are working class Americans abandoned by both political parties and eager to see a dramatic shakeup in Washington, D.C. They are also a key part of a new coalition that can potentially save, and unite, the Republican party.
Success and Failures of the Trump Agenda
In his first two years of office, President Trump made good on his promise to advance a conservative populist agenda for working-class Americans. Through the power of the executive branch, he is cutting regulations, reforming workforce development programs, renegotiating trade deals, restoring law and order, and enforcing immigration laws. President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, ended the Iran deal, addressed the opioid crisis, led on pro-growth tax reform, provided off-ramps from unaffordable government healthcare, and nominated conservative Supreme Court judges who respect traditional values like free speech and religious liberty. President Trump has delivered on many of his campaign promises to drain the swamp and give power back to working-class Americans.
Over the next two years, Republicans in Congress should work to rally the Party, and the American people around a legislative agenda that would build on these successes while laying the groundwork for a 2020 mandate for action. Legislative solutions supported by the President on healthcare, immigration, welfare, and federal spending are a crucial next step for the country. Far too many Americans still can’t afford health insurance. Local communities are threatened by sanctuary city policies and illegal immigrants. Dependency on government handouts continues despite the historic amount of job openings available. Federal debt threatens the economic prosperity of the next generation. In short, the Republican Party needs to fully embrace the new pro-working class conservative agenda.
The Path Forward for a 2020 Republican Mandate
Here is a roadmap for how Republicans can win back the trust of the American people:
1. Get Serious on Immigration and Secure the Border. The first duty of government is to defend its people and sovereign territory, yet Washington, D.C. seems unable to do this. The southern border is not secure. Sanctuary cities and “catch and release” practices continue to threaten our safety and security while illegal immigration undermines low-skilled American workers looking for jobs. President Trump is doing a lot to enforce existing immigration laws but Congress has failed to follow through with legislation. Republicans must fight to both secure the border and reform our legal immigration system into a merit-based one that preserves working class job opportunities and attracts high skilled workers from around the globe.
2. Reject Identity Politics and Defend the American Cultural Heritage. The values of Washington, D.C. are not the values shared by real America. Far too often, Republican lawmakers have stood by and watched as liberal politicians redefine and relativize marriage, sex, and the rights of the unborn. They have watched as faith-based organizations, businesses, and individuals are driven out of public life and forum. As social liberals pull the Democrat party to the extreme, working-class voters are looking for a party that will fight for their cultural values. Republicans must not be afraid to reject identity politics, protect free speech, safeguard religious liberty, and defend the rights of the unborn.
3. Overhaul Workforce Development and the Education System. The U.S. education system is failing to prepare the next generation of workers with the skills they need to compete in a global economy. American employers have more than seven million jobs they want to fill but can’t find the applicants due to a gap in skillset, a clean background to qualify, or the right incentives to take a job over a welfare check. Jobs in construction, truck driving, the technician industry, heavy equipment operations, and oilfields are looked down upon and go unfilled. Republicans must help change the culture surrounding these jobs and push workforce development and education decision making out of Washington, D.C. and back to the states and local governments. This means reforming the higher education system to include alternatives to four-year degrees such as state and local apprenticeship and vocational training programs. It also means expanding school choice programs so that parents have the resources to take their children out of failing public school systems and into an educational environment that's right for them.
4. Restore Healthcare Freedom. The American people know that Obamacare, the current law we are living under, is woefully insufficient. The crippling federal regulations and top down plans has created a market with rising health care prices and diminishing choices. The newly ascendant Democrats will push for total federal control over health care in the House. Republicans must answer by rallying around a plan of their own. Democrats want this to be about universal coverage. Republicans must avoid that trap and focus the debate on lower prices, better access to quality care and state flexibility. Republicans should remove health care decision making from Washington, D.C. bureaucrats and insurance company executives and give it to the American people. This means handing over both the regulatory and financial control of health care to the states, small businesses, nonprofits, and to individual families.
5. Make Permanent the Individual Tax Cuts. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was one of the biggest successes of the 115th Congress. Economic growth is booming, millions of jobs have been created, and unemployment is at a historic low. Democrats continue to demagogue the tax cuts as a give away to the wealthy, but working-class families are saving three-thousands dollars a year. The individual tax cuts expire in 2025 and Republicans must push the Democrat-controlled House to make them permanent. Moderate Democrats will not be able to defend a refusal to make those tax cuts permanent nor can they defend a refusal to give middle class Americans a new tax cut.
6. Rebuild our Nation’s Infrastructure the Smart Way. Candidate Trump struck a chord with working class America when he criticized the U.S. government for spending billions of dollars rebuilding foreign countries while neglecting our own. While he outlined a plan to rebuild America's infrastructure, Congress again failed to act. Republicans can’t continue to ignore this issue if they want to set a mandate in 2020. Part of the 116th congressional agenda must be to advance a fiscally responsible infrastructure plan free from government regulation and incompetence. This means streamlining and shortening the permitting process, removing regulatory barriers, freeing workers from union-imposed rules and contracts, and empowering state and local governments with decision making.
The results of the 2018 midterm elections are evidence that Republicans must embrace Trump’s agenda to revitalize “forgotten America” if they want to win in 2020. Republican losses in the House don’t signal an end to the conservative populist movement, but rather a momentary pause. To win back the trust of “forgotten America,” Republicans must fight for a new pro-working class conservative agenda in the 116th Congress.