It's the End of the GOP (and I Feel Fine)
Monday, August 8th, 2016
By Reed Galen
Quote By A Smart Person: “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” Jeanette Rankin
Last week Donald Trump could not stay out of trouble; the kind of trouble that would send most campaigns into panic-induced tremors. Between insulting babies, fighting with Gold Star families and refusing to publicly support fellow Republicans, Trump sent the conservative echo-chamber into orbit once again convincing many (once again) that he will suffer a monumental electoral defeat come November and reigniting the conversation among Republicans about what is next for the party. Regardless of the outcome, it probably doesn’t matter; to have a political party, a group of people must generally agree on a majority of issues (other than disliking Hillary Clinton) to try and elect candidates to office. The GOP writ-large is no longer able to make that claim.
Last fall’s Republican primary debates illustrated the stark relief between the various conservative factions. You had big-government social conservatives like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee advocating on the traditional values plank. Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie represented the traditional Republican set; pro-business, reasonable on most issues, likely able to reach across the aisle. Trump, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson stood up against Washington as a broken and rigged system that only a true outsider (or happy outcast in Cruz’s case) could fix. Rand Paul was the lone quasi-libertarian on the stage. These “lanes” as we called them ad nauseum turned out to be more than shorthand to describe the Republican field. Ultimately they were the Rosetta Stone for understanding the end of Republicanism as many of us have known it for decades.
Top Down vs. Bottom Up
In the scrum to claim primacy within the GOP, from which direction will it come? If we simplify the fight between those inside the Beltway and those out in the hustings. They’re both unhappy — about the party, the country and the future, but neither can figure out why the other is upset.
Logistically, the Republican National Committee and its 168 members set policy goals and manage the day-to-day operations of the titular party. It has relationships and some modicum of influence and control on state parties. It employs and deploys staff, raises money and warehouses voter data for various elections across the country. It serves as a hub of opposition research on Democratic candidates, office holders and policy proposals. But at the end of the day, it is a group of several hundred people trying to inform, influence and convince millions of voters.
A corollary to the RNC is the DC-based operative class (of which I was both a scion and a card-carrying member for many years) who’s job it is to actually go out and win elections. The 2013 Growth and Opportunity Project was largely created by and for this group. Why? Again, because if you run campaigns for a living, it’s better to have more voters like your candidate than less. It was also at its core a donor maintenance effort — trying to keep many of the party’s financial whales harpooned to the ship of party while it sorted itself out. However, much like the RNC writ-large, the autopsy completely ignored the ever-widening rift between those whom run elections and those who vote in them.
If the RNC/operative/#NeverTrump crowd is “victorious” (whatever that ends up meaning) they could well have a collection of smart, well-intentioned and well-funded people who have few voters to speak for. The moderate Republicans we so hope will save our bacon, have either abandoned the party or went for Trump and/or Cruz. If we look back at the total aggregate number of votes per candidate in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz garnered 70% of the total votes cast. John Kasich and Marco Rubio, the third and fourth place finishers, combined only achieved what Cruz did on his own. This is a terrible foreshadowing of things to come for the “Top Down” approach.
The Bottom Up crowd, as it were, began organizing themselves, somewhat organically, during the 2010 mid-term elections. They don’t like the national party, don’t like most of its politicians and see Washington as a hive of scum and villainy. They nominated many candidates for the US Senate who could not win a General Election. Just six short years later, their two preferred candidates for president, Trump and Cruz, finished first and second respectively in the primary.
For them, politics and policy and inextricably intertwined. An activist candidate will rail against Washington, and as their stated goal, will do all they can to prevent the government from doing things it shouldn’t. Objectively speaking, this is not a bad goal if you are in the libertarian-ish camp. However, much of their anti-government rhetoric has a decidedly nihilistic flavor to it, and many of these small-government stalwarts are pro-life and/or pro-internal security. They’re against your idea of big government, not theirs.
At the local level, the activist class has the passion and the votes. Highly gerrymandered districts protect, and even propel some more outlandish candidates because their voters are ready and willing to pull the level for anyone who is anti-Washington. In states like Texas, you can see state house races in which candidates can’t get to one another’s right fast enough. The ancillary effect of Trump’s success this year will be all the little Trumpy-clones saying crazy shit to garner media attention, good or bad.
The folks who met in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854 didn’t come from Washington, DC. They were individuals with a set of shared principles that they unleashed on the United States and in the process created one of the great political movements in human history.
If Trump loses in November, and Hillary Clinton does indeed begin appointing progressive and ultra-liberal judges, we may look back on a Freedom Caucus with only 45 members as the good old days. Every action by a Clinton administration will have a reaction by local conservative voters on their members of Congress. Speaker Paul Ryan will have to keep his crew onboard as they deal with myriad policy proposals from a new and energetic White House eager to rack up early wins. Should he and House leadership show any lack of resolve, the 2018 mid-terms could be a bloodbath: for moderate Republicans. Don’t like 20% of your Conference being Tea Partiers? Try getting anything done with 40% or 50% of them more likely to attack you, the Republican leadership, than the Democratic opposition.
The sniping has already begun. Who did what? When and why did they do it? Why didn’t you do it sooner? Who are you, anyway? Complete, irredeemable schisms in major political movements are not all that common, but when they happen, the result is often ugly and permanent. All the competing sides and interests will do all they can (within the bounds of traditional American politics, hopefully) to discredit their opponents, briefly unite with other factions toward common aims and ultimately drive apostates from the fold and into the political wilderness permanently.
That there is so much passion behind the idea of crippling others of a once-similar political stripe is again not new, but this level of internecine vitriol hasn’t been seen in some time. Political candidates will find themselves knocking on the doors of donors who won’t see them. Local political organizations will drive the un-pure from their ranks. Operatives will see their steady stream of work evaporate. Individuals on all sides of the rift will be attacked personally, and probably viciously, in the conservative media and on the snake pit that is social media. Lives and careers will be torn asunder, in some cases literally.
In the quest for purity, though, there will be collateral damage within all factions. Those seen as insufficiently loyal or free-thinking are likely to be chased out. Old dogs will be consigned to the pound, never to be adopted again. Young guns will be silenced before their talent, thoughts and idea are able to flourish in the hue and cry of a united campaign organization. Differences of degrees will be magnified, the resulting white-hot light burning out many intellects that likely have something to offer to the larger discussion.
After all the metaphorical stake burnings, the victors will look around and find a battlefield littered with friends and enemies alike. The best result would be a party stripped of its worst instincts, a raw, potent ideologically collection that appeals to voters across the political spectrum and puts forth coherent ideas on governance. At its worst outcome, it could reduce the GOP to a rump party nationally — leaving Democrats in charge of the White House and the Federal administration, with all its commensurate authority, for decades.
What the GOP Can’t Be (to Succeed)
So who is the GOP? Is it the party of Lincoln, or of Trump? Is it the party of small government and individual liberty or one that trades freedom for security? Do we believe that government, while highly imperfect and necessarily restrained, has certain duties it should in fact complete, or do we believe that no government equals best government? We will be the party of nativism or the party of free expression? Are we all equal in the eyes of the Lord and of the law or are some of us more equal than others?
“…The Party of Lincoln needs a top-to-bottom reset that completely purges the Trumpkins who believe racial animus is a governing philosophy and that their ignorant and angry screams can ever build a Republican majority.”
And while I agree with Wilson’s sentiment, the GOP didn’t become the party of old, white, angry men by accident. Perhaps since 1964 or 1968, the Party has assiduously either avoided, ignored or attacked minority voters and their issues. We have no presence in urban America. The world has changed around Republicans but to this day, millions of voters stare into the snow globe that was the American of years past and don’t believe time and society has passed them by.
Conversely, the GOP cannot be the party of Wall Street, cronyism and amnesty. Many of the complaints that Trump/Cruz voters expressed with their choices this year are legitimate. On any given day, events in Washington have an effect on Americans from New York, New York to Nampa, Idaho. If Republican officeholders continue to be seen as the pawns of donors and big business, voters will not return. To be clear: This is NOT a communications issue. These are policy decisions that in the aggregate have created major, long-term and perhaps irreversible political issues.
Immigration is an issue should, must be addressed. Policy-wise, we cannot as a sovereign nation have more than 11 million people within our borders who are basically stateless and live in the shadows. Purely politically, this issue must be take off the table as a hot potato that Democrats continually throw at Republicans’ heads. To be sure there are plenty of people and groups on the right for whom keeping immigration a hot-button issue is of vital importance — both to their campaigns and their pocketbooks.
The late, great Speaker Jesse Unruh of California famously said, “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them, you’ve got no business being up here.” Politicians of both parties have forgotten Unruh’s counsel. They still do all the things he lists, but now the policy follows the largesse. While it is nearly impossible to connect money to a specific vote, it’s no surprise that Google and Goldman generally get what they want in Congress. (Author’s note: Please do not take this passage as whining about money in politics. You tell me a better way, that actually works, and I’ll listen.)
If Donald Trump loses in November, as seems more likely by the day, Republican recriminations will be historic. The party as currently constituted cannot and will not withstand the geometric forces acting upon it, both from within and without. While the Establishment wants to grow the GOP, they also have a heavily vested interest in maintain DC’s status quo, and that force is pulling on the core. The activists, on the other hand, are trying to consolidate and purify the GOP, pulling it inward. These opposite gravitational poles are as strong as they’ve ever been, likely since the Whigs went the way of the Dodo. The result will be a separation — a thin, widely spread outer shell, drifting through space and an iron-heavy core that cannot sustain itself for long without additional fuel.
As surely as nature abhors a vacuum, so does politics. The GOP may have to look in the rearview mirror to see its best days, but its voters will go somewhere. In the Great Re-Sorting that the 2016 presidential campaign has represented, conservative voters — moderates and arch alike, will find their way eventually. While they make their way through this great empty space, party-less and disappointed, it may well be new force that collects the planetary dust of these lost political souls into a viable movement. And that’s not altogether a bad thing.
Copyright 2016. Jedburghs, LLC.