Ross Douthat: Republicans have a golden opportunity. They will probably blow it.

Many Republicans are comfortable having power and no agenda or responsibility.

(Eze Amos | The New York Times) A voter in Virginia’s rural Bath County, on Nov. 5, 2021. "Between the Democratic Party’s weaknesses, Biden’s age and the unimpressiveness of his possible successors, Republicans could very easily be competitive in 2024 while renominating Trump and campaigning on a purely negative agenda," writes The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

Last weekend I considered what the Democratic Party should expect from politics after COVID-19 — the hope of revived popularity for President Joe Biden under return-to-normalcy conditions, the danger that the left-tilting party might be losing ground across multiple different demographic groups. Now, after an interlude of giving thanks, let’s consider how post-COVID-19 politics might look from the Republican side.

Republicans have a lot to be thankful for. In the years since George W. Bush, their party has staggered around without a governing ideology, veering from one style of fantasy politics to another, and twice nominated a ridiculously unfit reality-television star for the presidency. Yet through it all the party has never collapsed, never fallen more than a little distance out of power and almost always retained a certain capacity to block the Democrats, which is the only thing its constituencies can agree on.

This pattern seems unlikely to be broken even if Biden’s poll numbers bounce back across 2022 and 2023. In that scenario Republicans will still probably narrowly recapture the House of Representatives, returning to the position that they held immediately after last November’s election — as a minority coalition, but a large one rather than a rump, which thanks to its structural advantages can always hope to hold at least part of Congress and ride a few lucky breaks into the White House.

But in a way, that advantage is also the core Republican weakness, and the party’s good fortune in avoiding profound punishment for all its follies is the reason those follies will probably continue. The problems in the Democratic Party — the danger that its progressive turn is costing it conservative-leaning minority votes, even as anti-Trump suburban voters could swing back to the GOP — create an opportunity for Republicans to win real popular majorities at the national level, on the scale of Bush in 2004 if not quite Ronald Reagan. But the fact that they don’t need to be a majority coalition to exercise a certain power means that they’re more likely to choose badly, and stay roughly where they are.

The alternative, the best-case post-COVID-19 scenario for the party, was visible in Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia campaign, which essentially blended elements from Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 with Mitt Romney in 2012, while shedding the baggage that kept both men from winning popular-vote majorities. Youngkin has a Romney-esque persona — the corporate suit and genial family man — but where the man from Bain Capital ended up captive to party dogma on taxes and entitlement cuts, the former Carlyle Group executive promised higher education spending and tax cuts that benefit the lower-middle class, playing against the corporate-Republican and supply-side stereotypes.

Meanwhile, Youngkin imitated Trump not just in his relatively populist promises but also in his willingness to pick cultural fights — in this case, on critical race theory in schools — that other moderate Republicans might shy away from. But then in most other ways he was an anti-Trump: decent rather than bullying, reasonable rather than paranoid, keeping conspiracism at a distance, reassuringly competent rather than apocalyptic.

So that’s all the GOP needs nationally to fully exploit its post-COVID-19 opportunities — a more populist economic agenda, a willingness to take the fight to the progressive left (but with a smile) and an end to Trumpian conspiracism.

But do enough actors in the party really want that combination? At the elite level there is a clutch of politicians and candidates who keep groping for a more populist agenda and a group of nationalist intellectuals who think they’re on the cusp of imposing one upon the party. But there is still a larger group of lawmakers, strategists and donors who are very comfortable having no agenda whatsoever, or falling back on the familiarity of upper-bracket tax cuts and pretend budget cuts as soon as they’re restored to power.

Among the party’s voters, activists and media personalities, meanwhile, there remains a clear appetite not for the Youngkin-style appropriation of certain parts of Trumpism, but for Trump in full — nourished by the plausible belief that populists and social conservatives can’t entirely trust more-corporate Republicans, the implausible belief that Trump’s nastiness helped him more than it hurt him, the false belief that he actually won the 2020 election, plus the very America-in-2021 desire for politics to be high-stakes TV entertainment rather than boring attempts to cobble together governing majorities.

And here’s the thing: Between the Democratic Party’s weaknesses, Biden’s age and the unimpressiveness of his possible successors, Republicans could very easily be competitive in 2024 while renominating Trump and campaigning on a purely negative agenda.

Sure, they can’t expect to govern effectively that way, and they’d be throwing away a potentially golden opportunity. But in the end the race would be close, there would be some exciting constitutional-crisis possibilities in the aftermath, and if the Democrats pulled it out, well, their majorities would be slim and 2026 would be just around the corner.

And if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past 15 years, it’s that the chance to enjoy a little bit of power without any real responsibility is impossible for Republicans to resist.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.