Republicans should rethink idea-free campaigns

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Democrats ran in 2020 on a long list of policies they planned to enact and implement, and now they are going through the agony of trying to make good on their promises. Republicans have found a foolproof way to avoid that pain: They’re not going to campaign on any ideas in the first place.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is perennially averse to having his party run on a legislative agenda. He discouraged Republican Senate candidates from campaigning on one in 2014, in the middle of President Barack Obama’s second term, and has often told colleagues that the Republicans’ nine-seat pickup that year vindicated that strategic choice.

Republicans have been following the plan not to have plans ever since. In 2016, Donald Trump ran for president with the wispiest of proposals: Building a wall and somehow making Mexico pay for it was as detailed as he got. In 2018, Republicans had control of both houses of Congress and the White House. They did not say what they would do if the voters kept them in power, beyond confirming judges. Trump released no second-term agenda when he ran for re-election in 2020, and the Republicans did not even produce a platform at their national convention that year. McConnell has reportedly told Republican donors he will not get behind a legislative agenda for this year’s elections, either.

There are exceptions to the rule of Republican inactivism. Senators Mike Lee, Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley have advanced ambitious proposals on a range of issues, as has J.D. Vance, the best-selling author who is running for Senate from Ohio. Their ideas are often heterodox among Republicans: Vance wants to break up big tech companies, for example, where most Republicans would prefer just to complain about them. Such ideas may gain ground, especially in the absence of alternatives.

For now, though, most Republicans are sticking with the McConnell way. It seems to have worked electorally. Republicans nearly won in 2020, even with an unpopular incumbent president. They are in a strong position to take the Senate and House of Representatives this fall. Reticence on policy may help them do it. An agenda creates a target. It also creates opportunity for dissension. It distracts from the main Republican message: that Biden is a failure.

A degree of silence also fits with a conservative disposition. There are more bad ideas than good ones, more pieces of legislation that deserve defeat than support.

There’s nothing wrong with running for legislative office primarily to prevent mistakes. In the U.S. political system, which has evolved to center on the White House, there’s a stronger case for running that kind of campaign during the midterms than in a presidential-election year. The presidential race sets the country’s political direction while the midterms function as a referendum on how the president is performing.

The main drawback to this strategy for Republican election victories is what happens after them, or rather what doesn’t. The strategy makes it more difficult for Republicans to govern when they have the opportunity.

Consider the record of 2017-18, the only two years within the last 15 when Republicans had unified control of the government. They spent months trying and ignominiously failing to move health-care policy in their direction. Among the reasons for their defeat: They hadn’t spent the previous years thinking about what to do about health care or responding to criticisms of their proposals. They decided to wait for their presidential candidate to come up with an agenda, but he preferred to tweet.

Democrats proceed very differently. They always have ideas about what government should be doing, as you would expect given their political philosophy, and they often offer many proposals during campaigns. The Democrats worked out many of their differences over health care in the campaigns of 2006 and 2008 before trying to make law in 2009, for example, and the decision to make the issue a priority was effectively taken party-wide. This difference in approach probably helps explain why, over the last generation, Democrats have done more to shape federal policy than Republicans have.

Or, to put it another way, why Democratic rule has been more effective.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.