The first time I lived in the nation’s capital, Ronald Reagan was president. The conservatives I knew there were proud of their movement’s accomplishments, in such areas as reforming taxes and challenging the Soviet empire, as well as disappointed by inadequate progress on such issues as cutting the federal budget.
The second time I lived in Washington, as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Bill Clinton was president but Republicans had just won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1950s. The conservatives I knew there came to be proud of their bipartisan accomplishments, such as balancing the budget and reforming the welfare system, as well as disappointed by inadequate progress on such issues as entitlements.
Here we are, at yet another key moment in political history, and I’m back in the nation’s capital. No, I’m not moving again. But during a recent series of meetings with conservative activists and donors in Washington, I’ve been fascinated with what I’m seeing and hearing.
Regardless of their personal views about Donald Trump, most conservatives feel optimistic for the first time in many years about the prospects for fundamental reform of federal policies — particularly on taxes, health care, and the regulatory morass. On Capitol Hill, they see Republican majorities composed mostly of members elected by larger margins than Trump won in their states, and led by experienced, committed conservatives with a clearly articulated agenda.
Regarding the incoming administration, they recognize that many key posts will be filled by experienced, committed conservatives — often recruited from the ranks of state governments that Republicans have been effectively governing for years. Trump may be new to the challenges of public administration and the details of public policy. But many of his Cabinet secretaries, deputies, and advisors won’t be.
Perhaps the greatest cause of optimism among the conservatives I know is that they no longer fear that a federal judiciary stacked with left-wing appointments will seek to nullify the policy accomplishments of a conservative Congress and conservative-led states. Assuming Trump follows through on his promises regarding judicial picks and federalism, conservatives believe a new era of grassroots reform is about to commence, based on principles of free enterprise, limited government, and consumer choice.
I share their optimism — but it’s a cautious optimism. I think that caution is warranted by the conduct and conclusion of the presidential campaign. While Trump won fair and square, context matters. Most voters didn’t support him. The ones who swung to him in key battleground states during the last weeks of the campaign were primarily the “anti-anti voters.” That is, they disliked both Trump and Clinton, thought both were dishonest and ill-suited to the job, and then ended up picking the Republican because at least he was an outsider who hadn’t endangered national security.
According to a post-election poll by High Point University, 54 percent of North Carolina voters are happy the Republicans will control Congress while 44 percent are happy Trump will be president. When it comes to national issues, nearly three-quarters believe that either the Republican Congress (34 percent) or the Congress and Trump working together (40 percent) should take the lead. Only 20 percent say Trump should take the lead.
There are really three Republican parties at the moment (which is about two and a half more than the number of effective Democratic parties). The strongest one is the grassroots party that controls most state governments. The congressional party has a lot of promising ideas but not as much experience enacting them as the grassroots party does. Finally, there is the new White House party emerging around the president-elect, including both longtime conservatives and insurgent populists.
These three GOP factions can and should cooperate to shape policy. Accepting the electoral context will help. This isn’t the first time conservatives have come to Washington with high hopes. Producing more successes than disappointments will require a prudent division of labor among the three groups — and a clear focus on what they have in common.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.