The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are Republicans hiding their agenda — or do they not know what it is?

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) at a Capitol Hill news conference on Dec. 10, 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Didn’t expect to say this, but: Maybe Republicans should start listening to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham.

Asked about Donald Trump’s role in the midterm elections on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, the South Carolina Republican said, “We need a positive agenda to talk about how we can fix the future for America, repair the damage, rather than trying to purge the party. I think the best thing for the Republican Party is to talk about policy.”

Graham is right. It would be helpful — for the health of both his party and U.S. democracy — if Republicans gave voters some idea of what policies they stand for and what actions they would take if they regained control of Congress.

Unfortunately, almost no one in Graham’s party seems to agree. Today, the erstwhile “party of ideas” offers none beyond 2020 election conspiracy theories, culture war grievances and, of course, undying fealty to Trump.

That does not exactly amount to an actionable policy agenda. Nor has the GOP lately attempted to craft one.

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Recall that, for the first time since its founding more than 160 years earlier, the GOP released no platform ahead of the 2020 election. Instead the Republican National Committee proffered a blank-check pledge to support whatever it was Trump might wish to do.

Catherine Rampell: The GOP isn't even pretending to stand for anything anymore

Likewise, GOP leaders have said they have no intention of releasing a legislative agenda before the midterms. Whatever Graham’s stated fondness for the “Contract With America” that helped Republicans regain control of Congress in 1994, his colleagues are not on board.

Asked recently what his party might do if back in the majority, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responded, “That is a very good question. And I’ll let you know when we take it back.”

McConnell isn’t the only Republican to sidestep this question. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference, was asked recently to name “three things that Republicans will do if you recapture the Senate in the midterms.”

The first action item, she said, would be to “tackle the issue of inflation.” She didn’t specify how, which is, umm, the hard part. This is the economic equivalent of saying your proposed cure for cancer is “less cancer.”

Ernst’s second to-do was “covid,” which she said meant getting more Americans access to tests (which the Biden administration had already begun taking orders to mail out) and making sure that schools and workplaces are open and “safe.” Again, no explanation of what this means in practice — nor any attempt to reconcile this goal with GOP lawsuits to block vaccination requirements, or Republicans’ rhetoric undermining trust in vaccines themselves.

The third thing Ernst said Republicans would do after regaining power is “foreign relations with our allies.” What does this mean? Your guess is as good as mine.

To be fair, as a (cynical) political strategy, withholding your agenda has some upsides. Elections are often referendums on incumbents. Declining to release policy details shields challengers from the nitpicks of journalists.

Provided details, voters might attempt to assess the party’s ideas. Such as if they are good or bad. Popular or unpopular. Or whether the math adds up.

McConnell and colleagues have calculated that it’s safer to remain a blank slate, upon which frustrated voters can project their hopes.

But at some point — after November or at some later date — Republicans will eventually regain power. And they will have to decide what to do with that power. Isn’t it better to start figuring that out now?

Perhaps they already know. Perhaps Republicans have hidden their agenda because they believe it will prove unpopular; that has been the case for their tax cuts for the rich and corporations and their (failed) attempts to take away Americans’ health coverage.

But it seems equally likely that they have failed to disclose their agenda because they themselves don’t know what it is.

That would help explain how the party fell so easily under the spell of an authoritarian con artist, one who made no attempt at a coherent governing philosophy beyond trying to steal everything that wasn’t nailed down.

A healthy political party hones an agenda, refining broad principles and paths for achieving those aims. It doesn’t get dazzled by every charismatic carnival barker who comes along. And it doesn’t purge members who try to craft and then adhere to some statement of principles because those principles might be unflattering to its leader.

And a healthy democracy has multiple, competing parties — with competing political philosophies — that aspire to do the hard work of governing. If Republican politicians genuinely believe that Democrats have wrongheaded or extreme ideas (and in some cases, I agree: They do!) the GOP should offer both a critique and an alternative.

Instead, Republicans tell voters: Trust us! Our top-secret agenda for the future will be Something Terrific.