Republicans, I’m told, were elected to Congress by the people, and yet they’ve done absolutely nothing. This indictment has now mutated into “Republicans gave President Obama everything he wanted,” i.e., the GOP and Obama were basically colluding against the American voter this whole time.
Republicans have been dreadful on plenty of fronts — the quality of their advocacy, the spine they show making arguments and the lack of innovation and malleability in the focus of their policies, to name a very few — but resistance to Obama’s legislative agenda was definitely not one of them. If Republicans had capitulated in the way the average angry populist claims, Obama would not have needed to enact some of the most consequential abuses of executive power since World War II.
Some of this anger is propelled by false expectations and wishful thinking about how government works — which is to say, when voters don’t get what they want they assume the system has failed. On one hand, voters are under the impression that presidents should be able to craft law and policy and make everything great again; and on the other, they are angered about the ineffectiveness of the legislative branch. It all depends on which of these corresponds with their own political affiliation.
As far as expectations go, Republicans deserve blame for making promises they couldn’t possibly fulfill — including the notion that they could repeal Obamacare. Then again, overpromising is not exactly a new political trend. And it’s not as if voters flock to candidates who tell them unvarnished facts about this cruel world of ours.
But did Republicans do nothing but surrender the last eight years?
If you’re a conservative who opposes immigration reform, conservatives put an end to it in 2008, when Republicans controlled the White House and Democrats controlled Congress. They stopped it when Obama was in the White House and Democrats controlled both legislative branches. Republicans then filibustered the DREAM Act of 2010 and voted to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and then many joined the suit against DACA. Yet on numerous occasions I’ve engaged with radio talk show callers and hosts who are mad at Republicans for not doing enough. Should the RNC send two battalions to shut down the White House?
The GOP was too late to stop Obamacare, and they are partially at fault for failing to deal with health care at all. Yet only one Republican ever voted for Obamacare. The GOP sued Obama for rewriting the law without a vote of Congress and, at this point, I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve voted to repeal ACA. They sent a repeal bill to the president’s desk.
Republicans also stopped cap-and-trade, which would have created a fabricated “market” for energy in the same way Obamacare fabricates “markets” for health insurance. Stopping it helped undermine Democrats’ efforts to make fossil fuels prohibitively expensive — which was, initially, the stated goal of this administration. When Obama circumvented Congress again, Republicans across the country sued the Environmental Protection Agency.
Conservatives in Congress also put an end to bipartisan gun-control legislation. They stopped the so-called Paycheck Fairness Act — twice — and the Paying a Fair Share Act of 2012, which would have raised taxes. They stopped the American Jobs Act bailout and the authoritarian card-check stuff. They stopped the DISCLOSE Act; and the sequestration replacement; and the Keep Student Loans Affordable Act of 2013; and the across-the-board federal minimum wage efforts. Republicans sued and won when Obama abused his power by naming recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.
This is not nothing.
Even more importantly, there is a counter-history to consider. There is no way to quantify how many Obama-led liberal initiatives would have been instituted without a Republican Congress — much less a tea party wing within that Republican Congress. The Obama presidency would probably have been as far-reaching as any in modern history. The very gridlock these populists grouse about is a reflection of a divided electorate. Though I imagine that’s not the sort of argument that wins voters.
In the end, one of the persistent complaints about the GOP is that it was too cowardly facing the prospect of a government shutdown. Unlike prevailing wisdom, I doubt shutting down government is always a loser for the GOP. Republicans have done just as well after shutdowns, historically. But the idea of utilizing shutdowns regularly as means of shaping policy is unrealistic. You can shut down Washington all you like: Obama is not going to allow Obamacare to be dismantled, and Democrats are not going to offer major concessions in spending. Change takes a long-term commitment with smart policy and good arguments; Republicans don’t have them. Shutdowns just tend to prove it.
The fact is: Democrats got some of the things they wanted. But not all, or we’d be dealing with single-payer health care, carbon-trading energy markets, more union bailouts and about a dozen reforms that you didn’t even know existed.