Part III: How the Republican Party Created this Mess
I have previously described Trump’s nomination as an anomaly, created by the freakish dynamics of the 2016 election (wherein too many qualified candidates caused all of them to go down in flames to one of the least qualified). However, while I consider Trump to be an anomaly in the short run, when considering the Republican Party more broadly, his nomination makes complete sense.
Returning to the ideological themes I touched upon earlier, the modern Republican Party as conceived of during the Reagan era consists of the three legged stool: a commitment to fiscal conservatism, social conservatism, and a strong national security apparatus. In comparing the rhetoric of Republican members of Congress to the policy results they have achieved, they have only really succeeded in achieving a strong national security state — and even that failed to prevent America’s humiliation in the face of rag-tag insurgencies across the Middle East. They completely and utterly failed on the fiscal and social fronts to articulate a positive and meaningful fiscal and social conservatism, and in doing so simultaneously ceded much of the terrain to Democrats while abandoning their own voters.
Let’s begin by examining the fiscal side. Part of the reason Reagan’s message was so successful is that Congress and the bureaucracy had created such a mess of taxes, regulations, and inflation over the past decade that it was relatively easy to rail against this largesse and cut the most obviously wasteful or unpopular aspects of government. Reagan was able to sign the largest tax cut in history in 1981 with bipartisan support, and cut funding from several other programs that many conservatives viewed as wasteful.
After the Reagan administration, fiscal conservatives made two major pushes: the first was the Republican Revolution of 1994, whose leadership sought to carry out the Contract with America, and the second was the Tea Party wave in 2010 (notably, both were midterm responses to the elections of Democratic presidents).
Newt Gingrich’s Republicans were more prepared, more willing to negotiate, and dealing with a more conservative president than the Tea Party sixteen years later. Even given all of this, they achieved mixed results on their fiscal goals. They failed to pass a balanced budget amendment, restrictions on tax increases, term limits, and zero baseline budgeting, and their line-item veto was nullified by the Supreme Court in Clinton v. City of New York. To be sure, their efforts did not fail entirely; their biggest success was passing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, which significantly reformed welfare by replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children into a new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families which creating work requirements to receive welfare. They also achieved a number of smaller successes in terms of regulatory barriers and agency spending.
The Tea Party in 2010 rode a similar wave to that of the Republican Revolution in 1994 off of discontent with President Obama and the legislative actions of the 111th Congress: the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. The Tea Party, which forced the Republican leadership to adopt many of their positions in negotiations with Democrats in the 112th Congress, was successful in shifting the goalposts. During the debt ceiling negotiations in 2011, the conversation was not about increasing deficit spending in the midst of a sluggish economy; rather, it was about how much spending would have to be cut in order for the Republicans to consider a tax cut (the answer: none). The compromise measure that came out of those negotiations (budget sequestration) cut non-defense and defense spending in equal quantities. As far as those negotiations went, it was a coup for the Tea Party.
But that was as far as they got. Despite adopting the rhetoric of the Tea Party in the Republican primaries, Romney was unable to defeat Obama in 2012, and Democrats increased their representation in the House and Senate. Despite a Republican wave in 2014, no major conservative policies have been enacted since, and the government shutdown in 2013 went absolutely nowhere. The Tea Party has limited itself primarily to stopping Obama from achieving a liberal agenda and symbolically voting to repeal Obamacare too many times to count.
There is a notable gap between the two periods I have described; namely, one in which Republicans actually held power in Washington: the presidency of George W. Bush. While Bush did cut income taxes, his domestic policy was marked by programs like No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D along with the increased spending that came with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The overall result of this, of course, was only to dramatically increase the federal deficit.
What was the result of these policies? While some of these reforms helped decrease wasteful spending or allocated it towards more “deserving” parties, it mostly targeted politically expedient positions or groups. What it did not do was solve the problems at hand. The work requirements in welfare may have helped cut down on people “mooching” off the system, but it did little to solve poverty; likewise with NCLB and education inequality and Medicare Part D and the solvency of Medicare. Of course, no law can magically fix any given issue, but there is reason to doubt whether the fiscal policies promoted by Republicans have improved the issues at hand.
Meanwhile, the one segment that consistently won was the pro-business wing of the Republican Party. Under Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay, corruption was widespread, and the only constituents to consistently benefit from Republican policies were lobbyists and large corporations. While the Republican agenda was nominally geared towards certain demographics – Medicare reform for the elderly, No Child Left Behind for children, Bush tax cuts for wealthy taxpayers, and so on – in reality, its policies helped no one except for those who didn’t need the assistance. The Republican Party has done nothing to help the poor, working class, and middle class either while spending and taxes have increased.
Turning towards social issues, Republicans once again were consistent rhetorically but achieved little policy-wise because they held their line too strongly and did not make a sufficiently strong secular case for their positions. With a few exceptions, Republicans have held strong to traditional positions on abortion and gay marriage, but they have little to show for it. Gay marriage has been a rout and the polls show that conservatives have underperformed on abortion. Meanwhile, the War on Drugs has been an abject failure and turned many Americans towards the pro-legalization position. On the few areas where Republicans have maintained conservative policies, such as on guns, they have done so mainly through fighting liberal reforms rather than creating new policies. And on immigration, the left has been able to pillory pro-reform conservatives as insincere and anti-amnesty hardliners as inhumane and racist.
Over the past few decades, Republicans have passed specific policies in these areas such as the Defense of Marriage Act and a partial birth abortion ban, but failed to achieve anything close to their aims. They failed to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, they have been unable to enact meaningful abortion restrictions, and they have failed to pass any meaningful reform to fix the immigration system.
Despite social issues motivating such a large portion of the Republican base, why has the Republican Party achieved nothing on this front? The answer once again lies with the elites of the Republican Party. For many – especially those operating within the Beltway – social issues are merely the tool with which they ensure the loyalty of the evangelical right. Once elected, Republican officials are quick to capitulate on social issues or reserve their political capital for battles that the donor class deems more important. For reasons beyond the scope of this piece, I think this conclusion is inaccurate; for now, it will suffice to note that Republicans’ rhetoric has not come close to matching their policy efforts.
The most meaningful change that Republicans were able to make on social issues was the replacement of Sandra Day O’Connor with the more conservative Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court, but those minimal social gains are at risk following the death of Antonin Scalia. While Republicans in Congress are fighting the nomination of Merrick Garland, the Court will shift drastically leftward barring a Trump victory.
The battleground on gay rights and religious liberty issues has shifted dramatically in the past twelve years. Conservatives are now playing defense to such an extent that the Benedict Option has become a topic of debate on the right. Emboldened by their victories, liberals are on the attack. It’s not an exaggeration to say the left hopes to purge religion from the public sphere and relegate it to the status of a glorified hobby.
While the religious right, libertarians, the Tea Party, and other factions of the party have heretofore sustained the Republican Party, they have had little to show for it because the Republican Party has only carried out a conservative agenda in rhetoric rather than in positive action. Given that the GOP has spent so much time and energy serving the well off instead of their broader electorate base, is it any surprise so many of these factions want to throw out career politicians and have finally opted for someone who might just have enough disdain for the donor class to prioritize them over Wall Street?
Part IV: A Way Out
In examining the plight of Republican Party and its electoral dilemma, other commentators at this point usually suggest making the Republican Party a more “tolerant” or “inclusive” party as the only way for them to move forward (an agenda which usually aligns with the commentator’s own political beliefs). There are two ways in which this is typically done.
The first observes the changing racial demographics of the American electorate – in 2000, the electorate was 78% white and in 2016, the electorate is projected to be only 69% white (and that downward trend will continue over the next few decades). On this view, the GOP is staying solvent by increasing their share of the white vote at the expense of minorities, but eventually they will hit a ceiling with white voters and not be able to win elections. While there are arguments over how soon the GOP will need to do this, the general principle is indisputable: if we held the partisanship of each racial group constant and considered the demographic changes over time, Democrats will come out ahead soon enough.
Thus, the argument goes that the GOP must appeal to minorities more, and the way they must do this is through creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, stop enacting voter ID laws, or other similar positions the GOP has taken that are at odds with the desires of liberals. The problem with these ideas is that they simply won’t work. The nomination of Trump was in part a repudiation of the immigration reform attempted by a number of Republicans in 2013 (this would be the segment of ideological Trump voters). Liberals’ attempts to project their own ideology on to the Republican Party cannot work because parties have to be responsive to their electoral base – especially the ones who vote in primaries – and while the merits of this strategy are ideologically questionable, they are undoubtedly not electorally viable.
The second type of proposal is an even more absurd idea than the first: that Republicans must abandon social conservatism and become socially “tolerant” like the Democrats. To do so would alienate a huge swath of the population: millions of Americans still support traditional marriage, and a majority oppose the Democratic position these days of publicly funded abortion on demand. In other words, the Republican Party would be committing electoral suicide.
What I propose is the broad strokes of an electoral strategy; it is not a policy paper, nor is it a precise gameplan for conservatives. But I think it suggests a way forward for the Republican Party that it allows it to take advantage of the leftward turn of the Democratic Party without compromising on its values.
On fiscal issues, I think there is much to be appreciated in the “Reformocon” agenda promoted by Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, and others. They promote a middle class-based agenda using market based solutions and pro-family welfare policies like expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit or more family friendly tax credits. While their agenda is not the stuff that excites people to go out and vote, Republicans like Rubio and Senator Mike Lee have promoted these types of ideas as the policies Republicans should be supporting. These are the types of issues that will give new voters in particular ideological reasons to stay with the GOP as an interesting and innovative party.
Where I think the electoral support for such an agenda comes is through a conservative populist movement. The media has falsely given Trump the “populist” label, but Trump is populist in rhetoric only. As I have said previously, one of the biggest problems with the Republican Party is their willingness to use government towards the support of large corporate interests (I should note that, although it is much less reported, the Democratic Party including progressive darlings like Elizabeth Warren also use government to further corporate interests).
Tim Carney has done an excellent job of attacking the “crony capitalism” I am referring to here in favor of a more free market capitalism. This means not choosing winners and losers in the market, whether that is in a Democrat-favored area like clean energy subsidies or a Republican-favored area like agricultural subsidies. Democrats are viewed as the party that supports eliminating corporate influence from Washington, but the reality of the situation is that their policies and programs will inevitably favor larger corporations who know how to manipulate the complex regulations issued by government programs over smaller businesses. Republicans rightfully have a reputation of being pro-business, but they must support a free market agenda and not take sides within the free market; such an agenda would resonate with Americans outside the spheres of influence in Washington, New York, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles.
The combination of family-friendly and anti-crony capitalist policies allows the Republican Party to combine their free market values with a middle class agenda supporting family and community cohesion. Within these bounds, there will naturally be policy disagreements, but this framework represents a serious attempt to address the discontent with government as usual that Trump has tapped within a set conservative values.
With respect to minorities, it is true that the demographic destiny of the Republican Party looks grim, but as I have said previously, that destiny will never be reached precisely because of the way two party politics works. The Republican Party will inevitably adjust to reflect the changing demographics of America; losing, as they will eventually if they continue on their current path, will do that to you, as the GOP of the middle of the 20th century and Democrats of the 80s and 90s showed. The question is how and when they adjust and if they continue to be a conservative party or not.
While the lumping together of minority groups almost always risks overgeneralization, minorities almost overwhelmingly share one characteristic: they are more religious than white Americans as a whole. Furthermore, the secularization of America that leads analysts to suggest the Republican Party become socially liberal is mostly a white phenomenon. As Democrats move to aggressively remove religion from the public sphere, the Republicans have an opportunity to promote their faith-based message. Black and Hispanic communities will be open to a certain type of Christian message; not the same type as that made to white evangelicals, but the importance of faith in civil society and in the family still resonates in these communities. And if sometime in the future conservative Christians can find common cause with Muslims on religious freedom, conservatism can be promoted in a variety of communities.
Some Republicans may decide to support immigration reform; a path to legalization, at the very least, is popular with enough Republicans for it to be viable in certain areas of the country. On immigration, Republicans are best off with an Open Tent position wherein the Republican Party allows for a diversity of positions on the issue and respects the positions of all sides. In this way, certain Republicans can build up support from minority communities where it makes the most sense for them.
I would not suggest that Republicans abandon their position on affirmative action or other such issues; as I described earlier, too many Republicans oppose affirmative action for it to make sense strategically. Rather, on this issue and others where they oppose adopting a “race conscious” perspective, they should explain why they hold these positions and why they believe their policies are better for minorities, but recognize that many minority voters may not be persuaded to vote for them, and that is okay – they don’t need to win a majority of the nonwhite vote, only to improve their standing in these communities.
In general, to make inroads in black, Hispanic, and Asian communities, Republicans must drastically increase their outreach efforts. Many immigrants possess conservative values – the importance of the family, hard work, and faith – and Republicans can sell many of them on their message. Right now, Republicans only need to slightly increase their margins in minority communities and, in particular, the black community – it should not be too difficult to go from winning 5 percent of the black vote to winning 10-15 percent of that vote. The fact of the matter is that Republicans will have to balance their outreach with the fact that they may be seen as “selling out” by those who vote Republican on the grounds of white identity politics, but if they manage to stay ideologically consistent they should be able to pull off the maneuver without losing too many white votes.
With respect to social issues, I have said previously that relitigating gay marriage at this point is simply an impossibility. Republicans and social conservatives have in front of them two difficult tasks if they want social conservatism to succeed and succeed within the Republican Party.
The easier task is to defend social conservatism on small-l liberal grounds. That means accepting that gay marriage will continue to be legal, but fight for conscience protections. In the short term, this would mean not forcing bakers to bake cakes for gay marriages if they are opposed to gay marriage and in the longer term allowing organizations to support traditional marriage without loss of tax exempt status or other government sanction.
On abortion, this means pressing the case as to why an unborn child has a right to its own life – starting with preventing late term abortions, which over 60 percent of Americans oppose. Abortion is one issue in particular where Republicans generally avoid voicing their opinions, but if they frame the issue correctly, they can make it a winning social issue. Democrats attack Republicans as wanting to ban abortion altogether, and Republicans attack Democrats as supporting abortion on demand, and neither position is particularly popular with the public, which generally supports a more nuanced and moderate position. By tacking to the center – if only for strategic purposes – Republicans can find success. And if coupled with pro family welfare programs that also support pregnant mothers and mothers of small children, Republicans have the opportunity to bolster their advantage with married women.
The more difficult task is to defend social conservatism as a communitarian project. Secular autonomy is winning the cultural battle in America today, and to many today, any sort of communitarian or virtue-based arguments may as well be coming from another planet. It is hard to tell people that they are not necessarily best off if the government and society leaves them alone to do what they want in their bedrooms, in their homes, and in their communities – especially given the conservative emphasis on freedom. But if Republicans want to succeed in this, they must distinguish between freedom from government oppression and freedom from the norms and constraints placed on individuals by families and communities, and articulate how these constraints can lead to happy and prosperous societies (which is a conversation for another time). There is a wealth of social science they can point to showing that the key to happiness is situating oneself within a community and maintaining good friendships – not friendships as we so casually use the term today, but true friendships, and scholars like Arthur Brooks at AEI have articulated these ideas well.
If conservatives can pull this off, the ideas of social conservatism can be viewed as a positive project towards building stronger and more united communities based on shared values and morality. If these conservatives fail, as they are currently on course to do, they will only be viewed as a hateful minority of Americans living in the past.
In these areas, I have outlined what I see to be the most prosperous paths that the Republican Party can take. It is not a list of the ideological positions that I hold and therefore want the Republican Party to adopt, and I disagree with more than one of them. But they represent what I believe to be the best way forward for the Republican Party, a way that retains conservative values across the board while allowing the party to grow.
My way forward may not be the path forward the Republican Party takes but I am optimistic that they will adopt at least some of these changes. I really hope that the Trump nomination serves as a wake up call to the leaders of the Republican Party and to conservative activists that if they want to enact a conservative agenda, they cannot continue doing business as the Republican Party has in the past few decades. They have achieved almost nothing in the realms of fiscal and social policy since the presidency of Reagan, and if they continue as they have, they will eventually be overrun by the policies of the Democratic Party.
It is certainly not too late – Republicans’ power across government can testify to that – but the GOP has reached a crucial point that will determine their future for decades: whether they will seize this opportunity and remake the Republican Party and conservatism to be one of prosperity, fairness, and community, or if they are content to merely dedicated to slowing down the cultural and fiscal liberalization of America. For their sake, and for America’s, I hope they choose the former.