Republicans are seething about the fact that President Trump just agreed with Democrats to pair a Hurricane Harvey relief package with a three-month extension of the debt ceiling and a bill to fund the government for the same amount of time, instead of the 18-month extension of the debt ceiling the GOP wanted. So how goes the great conservative ideological crusade?
Think about it for a moment. Republicans are mad because their preferred option — a huge government aid package coupled with taking off the table a tool they used to try to compel spending cuts when Barack Obama was president — has been pushed aside in favor of a huge government aid package coupled with keeping that tool around.
In other words, both of the options for this deal validated big government. Now Republicans are in the position of arguing that it would be terribly irresponsible not to increase the debt ceiling for an extended period of time. Republicans are the ones who now have to make sure ideological disputes don’t impair the smooth functioning of government, rather than being able to use the specter of dysfunction as a weapon to force smaller government.
This wasn’t how they envisioned things going back in 2016 when they resigned themselves to Donald Trump being the leader of their party. Sure, he was an unstable, ignorant buffoon who ran a nakedly racist campaign and got caught bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity. And sure, he didn’t seem to care much about their ideological agenda. But what were they going to do? Vote for Hillary Clinton? Or a third-party candidate? Not on your life. As Grover Norquist once said, all they needed was to “pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to be president of the United States.” They’d send him one sweeping bill after another, he’d sign them, and before you knew it, we’d all be living in the glorious small-government paradise Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand promised us.
But something went wrong. As they found out when they tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Americans actually love big government. They might respond to all the vague rhetoric about self-reliance and getting government off their backs, but when it comes to the things government actually does, they want even more of it. They don’t want Medicaid slashed and tens of millions of people to lose their health coverage. When they got a look at the cruel free-market future for health care Republicans were offering, they recoiled in horror.
And then came these hurricanes, which reminded everybody that when your house floods or blows down, it’s the federal government you look to for help. There are no libertarians in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Even the Texas GOP, which has complete control of the state and loves nothing more than to shake its fist at gu’mint interference from Washington and tell those dastardly bureaucrats to get their noses out of the Lone Star State’s business, is now begging the federal government for a bailout. Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s so conservative he makes his predecessor Rick Perry look like Bernie Sanders, says he expects the American taxpayer to give his state between $150 and $180 billion. Not so self-reliant now, are we?
All that isn’t to say Trump isn’t making progress on many of the Republicans’ ideological goals. Many agencies have become horror shows of malign corporate influence or outright neglect, particularly the EPA and the Department of Education. Jeff Sessions is busy rolling back the clock on voting rights, drug policy and whatever else he can get his hands on. Trump is appointing a raft of right-wing judges. Look anywhere in government, and you’re likely to find that the new Deputy Secretary of Henhouse Management is the former lobbyist for FoxCo. If you’re a conservative, there’s a lot to be pleased about.
But at a fundamental level, it’s becoming clear the Trump years will not bring the transformation Republicans dreamed of when they imagined having complete control of the government. Americans aren’t clamoring for tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy (although that might not be enough to stop Republicans from passing them). They don’t want the safety net cut to ribbons. They don’t want banks freed to do whatever they want. They actually like big government.
Republicans are always terrified that Democratic rule will end up validating and entrenching activist government, that given the chance, Democrats will enact a bunch of generous giveaways that the public will be loath to part with, making the GOP’s project of dismantling government all the more difficult. That fear is not unreasonable. But now it appears that through a combination of incompetence, circumstance and the essential unpopularity of their agenda, it’ll be Republican rule that shows us all that big government is here to stay.