It’s hard for a political party to self-diagnose its problems when its thinkers are at odds about the nature and extent of the current symptoms. That’s the condition of the Republican Party, which began this presidential cycle highly confident about consolidating power gained at the congressional and state levels during the last two midterms with the capture of that last Democratic redoubt, the White House.
Some Republicans think that is still the party’s trajectory, and dismiss the craziness of the early GOP presidential contest as an illusion or a temporary moment of turbulence. A greater number cover their ears and tell themselves and others that nothing that happens before late primary voters run to the rescue of Establishment candidates is real. All this Trump lunacy, all this “outsider revolt” business, is just noise created by mischievous or hostile media elements, they believe. The enduring Reagan ideology of well-armed internationalism, free-market economics, and the gradual, stealthy erosion of the New Deal and Great Society abominations, advanced by skillful if conventional politicians, will reassert its control over the GOP when the deal really goes down.
Now GOP heretic David Frum has penned the most persuasive rebuttal to the gospel of conservative triumphalism. He argues that the “Republican revolt” that dominated the Invisible Primary of 2015 represents an inevitable comeuppance for party elites who have regularly ignored the economic interests and outlook of the very white working-class voters who have kept the GOP competitive at a time when its standing among young and minority and even professional voters is weak. And he contends the baffled reaction of the Republican Establishment over the ascent and persistence of Donald Trump and the rank-and-file rejection of their beau ideal, Jeb Bush, simply continues a misunderstanding that goes back at least to the 2012 postmortem. As the famous RNC-sponsored “autopsy report” indicated, party elites were convinced that Mitt Romney lost because he offended Latino voters with his “self-deportation” talk. Frum thinks Mitt’s tough position on immigration enforcement was probably the only reason he was able to fend off intraparty rivals, weak as they were, who were channeling middle-class disgruntlement with “Conservatism Classic.” But now the shoe’s on the other foot.
Frum goes on to lay out four paths ahead for his party. Three of them involve evasions of or uncomfortable compromises with the “Republican revolt.” One is simply to find a better vehicle for Conservatism Classic than Jeb Bush; Marco Rubio is the obvious hope for that approach. Another is to recapitulate Romney’s success in buying off angry nationalist voters with a tough position on immigration lashed to Conservatism Classic; in Frum’s view, that’s what Ted Cruz probably represents. A third path is to accept a chronic disadvantage in presidential elections rather than letting go of Conservatism Classic, counting on party strength in other avenues of power to offset or even overwhelm Democratic White Houses.
The fourth path, which Frum calls “True Reform,” is, he concedes, the least likely:
Admittedly, this may be the most uncongenial thought of them all, but party elites could try to open more ideological space for the economic interests of the middle class. Make peace with universal health-insurance coverage: Mend Obamacare rather than end it. Cut taxes less at the top, and use the money to deliver more benefits to working families in the middle. Devise immigration policy to support wages, not undercut them. Worry more about regulations that artificially transfer wealth upward, and less about regulations that constrain financial speculation. Take seriously issues such as the length of commutes, nursing-home costs, and the anticompetitive practices that inflate college tuition. Remember that Republican voters care more about aligning government with their values of work and family than they care about cutting the size of government as an end in itself. Recognize that the gimmick of mobilizing the base with culture-war outrages stopped working at least a decade ago.
Such a party would cut health-care costs by squeezing providers, not young beneficiaries. It would boost productivity by investing in hard infrastructure — bridges, airports, water-treatment plants. It would restore Dwight Eisenhower to the Republican pantheon alongside Ronald Reagan and emphasize the center incenter-right.
To imagine the change is to see how convulsive it would be — and how unlikely. True, center-right conservative parties backed by broad multiethnic coalitions of the middle class have gained and exercised power in other English-speaking countries, even as Republicans lost the presidency in 2008 and 2012. But the most-influential voices in American conservatism reject the experience of their foreign counterparts as weak, unprincipled, and unnecessary.
That’s putting it mildly. Even in this strange presidential cycle, if you listen to the presidential candidates not named Donald Trump, and ignore the real if limited differences that exist on foreign policy and fiscal strategy and tactics, the perpetual message, uttered endlessly like the grinding of cicadas, is cut taxes, repeal Obamacare, roll back regulations. Yes, Republicans are willing now and then to opportunistically “defend” government programs benefiting their own constituents, as evidenced most scandalously in 2012 by Paul Ryan’s claim he was fighting to save Medicare. And yes, they are more than willing to indulge and support the anger of middle-class folks who are really only “anti-government” when it comes to redistribution of resources to those people who do not share the abundant and inherent virtues of the white people who built this country. But in their hearts, and at the quiet but determined insistence of their donors, they’re happy to disable government when they cannot shrink it, joyful in the knowledge that an incompetent public sector damages progressives.
If Frum is right, of course, the ability of standard-brand conservatives to keep a lid on the furies they have aroused is not just in question this presidential cycle. Yes, Donald Trump is a skillful demagogue — if one who plays the clown a bit too often and well to become something other than the leader of a protest movement. At some point the class differences suffusing a party of white identity politics will become unmanageable. And who knows what rough beast will slouch towards Bethlehem to be born when that happens?
In the meantime, GOP elites would rather remain in denial or even continue to lose presidential elections if the alternative is a significant change in their core ideology. If they do lose in 2016, it will be interesting to see if the next post-election “autopsy” continues to deflect blame from an economic worldview and a philosophy of government tailor-made for the people doing quite well in the 21st century.