The two factions agree on many things, but entitlement spending has the potential to divide the coalition. Conservatives tend to value smaller federal government as an end in and of itself, while populists tend to benefit from an extensive social safety net. The clash between the two views has led to some notable Republican missteps.
In 1995, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to balance the budget in part by proposing to cut the rate of growth in Medicare spending. Republicans kept the House in 1996, but no one can plausibly say that the proposed cuts were successful. Neither President George W. Bush’s proposed creation of private retirement accounts as a partial replacement for Social Security in 2005, nor then-Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed voucherization of Medicare in the run-up to the 2012 election led to Republican victories. In both cases, moderate, largely working-class Democrats, who might have found other aspects of the Republican message attractive, strongly disliked these policies. Many of the same voters who had given Republicans massive majorities in the 1994 and 2010 midterms to stop Democratic overreach reelected Democratic presidents two years later to prevent Republican overreach.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.