It's not just the moderates who are headed for the exits in President Trump's Republican Party.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, announced his retirement on Tuesday. A week earlier, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) indicated he will not run for re-election next year. These are two strong fiscal conservatives from the limited government wing of the Republican Party. Flake specifically argued that his conservative views are unwelcome in the party at this time, saying on the Senate floor that "a traditional conservative" who believes in limited government and free markets "has a narrower and narrower path to nomination" in today's GOP.
It's true that the party has gone to extremes. Meanwhile, Republicans seem unable to pass conservative legislation. Republicans repeatedly failed to repeal and replace ObamaCare this year. Now they are struggling to come together on tax reform. Conservatives are every bit as frustrated with the slow pace of change in Washington as centrists.
"God put the Republican Party on Earth to cut taxes," columnist Robert Novak memorably quipped. "If they don't do that, they have no useful function."
It's tempting and easy to blame all this on President Trump. He hasn't provided normal presidential leadership for big legislative initiatives. He is not a principled fiscal conservative and is more authoritarian than libertarian in his impulses. He actively campaigned against parts of the conservative economic agenda, such as free-market entitlement reform, during the Republican primaries. And on everything from Russia to his tweets, Trump is a constant distraction.
But Trump has governed much more like a normal Republican in many of these areas than conservatives had any reason to expect prior to his election. His executive actions have pushed deregulation and have often put decisions back in Congress' hands, unlike his predecessor's.
More importantly, limited government conservatives face problems that will persist after Trump leaves office. For one thing, a very large part of the conservative base — the only governing coalition that has proven capable of electing officeholders with a willingness to cut regulation, spending, and taxes — is not anti-statist in any principled sense.
We saw the Tea Party morph from a libertarian-leaning political movement into something much more Trumpian in short order. And indeed, there was always reason to suspect that much of what passes for fiscal conservatism in America is really social conservatism, a lightly secularized version of the Protestant work ethic.
Yet conservatives might have supposed, or at least hoped, that somewhere in the transition from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan the rank-and-file would have gradually become more interested in reforming, if not reducing, the welfare state than scoring points against the liberal "fake news" media.
Let's just say that recent political history has not been kind to such assumptions.
In fact, Trump's more statist populism might for the moment be a more viable political model than the Republican congressional leadership's when it comes to prevailing in the Electoral College. Note that a relatively conservative Democratic senator up for re-election next year in a state Trump won by more than 40 points doesn't find it necessary to vote with Republicans on ObamaCare, for instance.
The inability to pass straightforward conservative bills is especially challenging to the political project commenced by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). It is not immediately clear how Republicans get from the status quo to a bigger role for the free market in health care or entitlements.
The constituency for these reforms seems surprisingly weak even inside the GOP. Moreover, unlike the Democrats who built most of the modern welfare state in a handful of periods where they had huge supermajorities, Republicans have not had majorities that big in the post-New Deal era and have now in two periods of unified government in a dozen years proved incapable of producing Ryan-style reforms.
The low-hanging fruit of 70 percent tax rates, pre-1990s reform welfare, and 1970s-style bureaucracy is mostly gone (though some Democrats do seem interested in bringing them back) while even programs of questionable efficacy, like Medicaid or the VA, are resistant to change.
None of this is written in stone. New leaders could emerge and political conditions are always subject to change. Certainly, periods of liberal misgovernment have provided opportunities for conservatives in the past. But the right has some problems to contend with, starting inside the Republican Party.