Like nearly every other aspect of the federal political landscape, prospects for evidence-based policymaking were upended by the stunning results of the 2016 elections.
Pre-election polls had predicted a continuation of divided government, with Democrats winning the presidency and possibly the Senate, while Republicans retained control of the House. Had that occurred, it would have extended the existing partisan gridlock, leaving evidence-based policy among a handful of low-profile issues where the two parties might still find common ground.
Instead, Republicans unexpectedly won control of the presidency while retaining control of Congress, sharply shifting Washington's center of gravity away from bipartisan consensus and toward a new and uncertain balance between the establishment and populist wings of the GOP.
Evidence-based policymaking – a broad-based effort to tie the funding and design of federal programs to rigorous, independent evaluations that show progress – has commanded significant bipartisan support at the highest levels in recent years, including from both President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Because this support has been limited to the establishment wings of the two major parties, however, the consensus has always been fragile.
The 2016 elections clarified just how vulnerable that support might be. Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton was one sign of the emerging populist backlash, but Donald Trump's rise was even more stunning.
Trump trounced a field of current and former governors, senators, and other luminaries in the Republican primaries while simultaneously overcoming strenuous opposition from key elements of the conservative establishment, including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Club for Growth. His final victory in November came despite the united opposition of both party establishments – in many cases the same people that provide the bulwark of support for evidence-based policy.
The president-elect’s core positions – on immigration, international trade, and foreign policy – represent a rejection of bipartisan elite opinion. His views are much closer to those of European national populists like Nigel Farage, who successfully led efforts in Britain to exit the European Union earlier this year, and Marine Le Pen, a leading populist right candidate for the French presidency in 2017.
These ideological and personal differences sparked rising tensions between Trump and the GOP establishment throughout the campaign. As election day approached, they prompted speculation about a pending intra-party civil war, with populist and establishment conservatives each promising to purge the other after the election was over.
Extending an Olive Branch
Trump's unexpected victory seems to have sidelined those divisions – for now.
Despite the sudden surge in post-election comity, however, many policy differences still separate the president-elect and the GOP congressional leadership. During the campaign, he rejected GOP proposals to trim Social Security and promised to substantially increase transportation infrastructure spending to create new jobs.
He promised to repeal Obamacare, but said he would replace it with an alternative that would retain at least some of its most popular provisions, such as coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Such positions challenge the GOP's small government orthodoxy, but Trump has extended olive branches to congressional Republicans on other issues. Among them is a willingness to consider the House GOP's anti-poverty proposals, which substantially incorporate Speaker Ryan’s ideas on evidence-based policymaking.
“He wants to take people out of poverty. So do I. We're going to come up with a plan,” Trump said on CBS’s Face the Nation in June.
The Ryan-backed House package, called A Better Way, includes several evidence-based policy recommendations, including proposals to fund more evaluations of federal programs and to shift more existing funding to programs with evidence that they work.
The recommendations also endorse tiered funding strategies used by several Obama administration programs like the Social Innovation Fund, which congressional Republicans have repeatedly targeted for elimination. Without mentioning them by name, Ryan’s framework indirectly suggests that Republicans might rework and claim them as their own.
"Tiered evidence and paying for performance are natural conservative ideas,” said Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute shortly after the plan was released.
The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking may also play a substantial role, although its bipartisan imprimatur may be less important now that Republicans are poised to assume control of both the presidency and Congress.
Personnel Is Policy
Any future agreements between a Trump White House and congressional Republicans are likely to be negotiated by administration officials who have not yet been appointed.
One possible go-between is Reince Priebus, Trump’s newly designated White House chief of staff. Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee acted as an intermediary between Trump and Ryan during the campaign. Ryan and Priebus are both from Wisconsin and are personally and politically close.
On poverty issues, another key post is likely to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Dr. Ben Carson, who ran against Trump during the primaries but later endorsed him, is said to be a leading candidate. Carson accompanied Trump on a visit to an African American church in Detroit in September, where he made a commitment to address urban issues, jobs, and education.
Another possibility for the position is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, although he is also under consideration for Secretary of State. Gingrich has reportedly said that he wants to serve as a senior advisor with authority to review federal waste, fraud and abuse.
"I would like to be sort of a senior planner, trying to think through how we fundamentally, at the most basic levels, restructure the federal government," Gingrich said on conservative commentator Sean Hannity's radio show.
Regardless of who fills these positions, the coming debate on evidence-based policy seems likely to become more partisan.
Under divided government last year, the two parties enacted legislation reworking No Child Left Behind and came close on legislation that would update the nation's major anti-poverty laws. Both contained substantial evidence-based provisions.
That bipartisanship was not destined to last. With the first presidential primary looming, the detente ended last December with Ryan declaring that he would spend 2016 laying out a more partisan vision for government.
“We need a new president,” he said. “It’s just that simple."
A year later, Ryan now has a new president. But Trump’s support for establishment-backed policies may run no deeper than the Republican establishment’s belief in him.
Patrick Lester is the director of the Social Innovation Research Center.