As the calendar prepares to turn, one fact has remained constant: Donald Trump is the clear leader in Republican Primary national polls. He is almost certainly trailing Ted Cruz in Iowa but maintains a large lead in New Hampshire where establishment candidates have fractured the vote and should he win there is poised for strong showings through the March 1 “SEC Primary.” While national polls have dubious predictive power, establishment types are increasingly antsy about Trump’s staying-power as they (correctly) believe he would struggle in a general election. Take George Will for instance who last week declared in a column entitled, “If Trump wins the nomination, prepare for the end of the conservative party”:
“It is possible Trump will not win any primary, and that by the middle of March our long national embarrassment will be over. But this avatar of unfettered government and executive authoritarianism has mesmerized a large portion of Republicans for six months. The larger portion should understand this:
One hundred and four years of history is in the balance. If Trump is the Republican nominee in 2016, there might not be a conservative party in 2020 either.”
Now, there are two issues with Will’s column. First, a Trump nomination would not be the end of a conservative party in America. Presidential campaigns lend themselves to hyperbole (“this is a mildly important election” doesn’t turn out the vote so well), and that is the case here. Given his poor standing with Hispanics and women voters, I agree Trump would likely lose and lose badly. The only path I see would be choosing someone like David Petreaus as his Vice-President (to calm voters antsy about making Trump Commander-in-Chief) and go for an Upper Midwest strategy. Against Hillary Clinton, one would have to put the odds of a Trump victory at less than 15%, barring some dramatic economic collapse or terrorist attack that destroys President Obama’s popular standing.
Even if Trump lost though, the GOP is not doomed. Surely, many prognosticators saw disaster for liberals after Michael Dukakis suffered the third straight Democratic ignominy in 1988. In the three elections from 1980-1988, the GOP carried the electoral vote a combined 1440-174. That is called being lost in the wilderness, yet Democrats have proceeded to win 5 of the next 6 popular votes, and in 2008, America elected the most liberal man to be President since at least Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (Ideologically, Obama is probably to the left of Johnson, he is merely less effective at making his agenda law). My point here is that political persuasions are “stickier” or more entrenched than we sometimes give them credit for, and to suggest the GOP is one defeat from obsolescence is over the top, particularly with Republicans controlling the House and 31 Governor’s Mansions from which conservative reform agendas are being carried out. Would a third term for the Democratic Party have significant long-term consequences? Yes. Is the conservative party a terrible candidate away from disappearing? No.
Second, there is this sense that Trump is a cancer on conservatism when in reality Trump is exploiting a cancer that has already grown on the movement. Will is right to call out Trump’s constant boasting as a sign of a lack of self-esteem (this is an ironic charge from a man whose columns read like a self-conscious showcase of as many inane, multisyllabic words as possible in an effort to prove his intellectual superiority), and I too am no Trump fan, taking serious issue with his rhetoric, past policy flip-flops, Muslim travel suspension, and so forth. Trump is no typical conservative by any stretch, but his popularity in conservative precincts is easy to understand.
The intellectual, donor, and corporate establishment has grown increasingly adrift from the base with a rising elitism poisoning the conservative movement. Elements of the party have morphed from capitalist to corporatists with large, entrenched firms enjoying a convoluted tax code that serves to raise the barriers to entry. As explained in a bit more depth below (and in much more detail here) economic policy coming from the party seems to either reflexively reflect 1980s policies or benefit the monied interests. I’ve always struggled as to how a conservative can be an elitist given that the ideology is one optimistic about the skills of ordinary people. We have so much faith in man, we prefer to endow each individual with power rather than leaving it the hands of centralized bureaucrats who deem themselves experts. Conservativism is inherently populist, but often one can feel conservative DC elites looking down at Trump supporters and the citizenry at large.
Justifiably or not, the Republicans are viewed as the party of the elites, and that is problematic. Just examine the 2012 exit polls:
Romney lost 35%-63% among voters earning under $30,000 and 42%-57% among voters earning $30,000-$49,999. Romney lost the overall popular voter 47.2% to 51.1%, but if he had done 5% better among those earning under 50k (going from 38% to 43%), the popular vote would have been 49.2% for Romney to 49.1% for Obama. Obama still would have likely have won the Electoral College (Romney getting 253 instead of 206 votes, short of the 270 needed to win), but it would have been closer. For all of the talk about doing better with Hispanic voters to win elections, doing better with the working and middle class is critical for the Republican Party to win national elections (admittedly, doing better with the working and middle class likely entails doing better with Hispanic voters).
53% of voters thought Romney policies favored the rich; only 34% thought the middle class was favored. 21% of voters believed the most important quality was having a President who “cares about people like me.” Romney lost those voters 18% to 81%, and this block of voters was decisive in delivering the election for the President. Republicans have a clear empathy problem. Now, there are two possibilities here. One, the republicans offer the right policies for these voters and are doing a terrible job communicating them, or two, the policy mix is bad for these voters and they are acting rationally by voting for Democrats. As the Democrats are keen to offer free stuff, winning the communications battle will invariably be tough, but there is definitely room for improvement, especially as conservative policies can help lift working people more than an entangling, 20th century safety net. Plus, republicans don’t have to win these voters outright, just do less badly.
There are strains in the Republican Party that are offering wise policies, focused on improving and expanding the earned income tax credit, eliminating marriage disincentives, and successfully employing charters schools as Washington DC has done. Leaders like Paul Ryan, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio have each come up with some good proposals in these areas, but Republicans have failed to come out with a comprehensive economic policy that all Americans, poor, middle class, and wealthy, can buy into in part because few in the party seem to recognize that the past 15 years, under both Presidents Bush and Obama, have been lousy for the middle and working class. President Bush’s economic record is far from perfect. This country has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs in 20 years and seen real median income declines since 1997:
Under President Reagan, America saw stellar economic growth, but his policies addressed specific problems, including a lack of capital and squeezed margins. His tax cuts were aimed at fixing specific problems and are not a timeless solution in and of themselves. Today’s problems are different with a job-skills mismatch, burdensome lending regulations, inefficient deductions, and internationally obsolete code, and the solutions need to address these ills while recognizing policies must help the working and middle class lift themselves up (different from the Bernie Sanders approach of tearing the rich down). Has any somewhat viable Republican Presidential candidate made an argument they will help workers?
Trump has. The premise of his campaign is helping workers. He has said Super PACs screw Americans because politicians become beholden to corporate donors. Our free trade agreements have cost us jobs because our leaders are terrible negotiators (and if you were one of the 5 million who lost a manufacturing job, you would have some sympathy for this argument). Over the summer, Trump said, “the middle class is getting clobbered in this country. You know the middle class built this country, not the hedge fund guys, but I know people in hedge funds that pay almost nothing and it’s ridiculous, OK?” It is unsurprising that Trump has built a strong base of support amongst working and middle class voters in GOP primary polls because his campaign is directly targeted to them.
Now, this is separate from arguing Trump policies would actually help the middle class (this is very debatable), but he, being a master brander, has done an excellent job selling it. It has been easy for him because the establishment has shown no interest in reaching out to these voters in years. Did Romney ever prosecute the case as to how ordinary Americans would be better off? Exit polls (and memories of the campaign) say “no;” the establishment has no built in credibility. We’ve gone from Reagan calling all Americans “heroes” to Romney decrying “the 47%” behind closed doors. Plus, no other candidate has made a compelling argument to these voters. Ben Carson has an inspiring life story but has been unable to offer a specific policy vision on economic or foreign affairs. Jeb Bush is just constitutionally incapable of making compelling arguments, and while he has promised 4% growth, he has never articulated how his plans ensure the growth will be enjoyed by all. Rubio hits some of the right notes, like an expanded-EITC, but has focused on foreign affairs (he is best positioned to appeal to working people in my opinion but has failed to make a clear effort). Ted Cruz’s tax plan would likely hurt workers and creates a VAT that disincentivizes employment—it’s an unimaginably idiotic tax plan to be frank.
Trump’s competitors have made it easy, proving utterly incapable or uninterested in offering an inclusive economic message. Given 15 years of stagnation and a republican establishment that has made little substantive effort to include them, working and middle class voters are understandably frustrated and willing to go for an unorthodox candidate. Enter Trump who has a message tailored for them and who has faced no competition on the economic populist front. No wonder he polls so high.
Trump isn’t a doctrinaire conservative, but conservatives have failed to update policies or explain how our vision economic plans can help all Americans. That is the movement’s failing. Blaming Trump voters for being unprincipled for backing a (charitably) inconsistent conservative has proven pointless in bringing down his support and is perhaps unfair to his supporters. If you offer voters nothing, don’t be surprised if they look elsewhere and ignore your warnings. Voters are perhaps willing to look past Trump’s faults because they see no alternative—what has the conservative movement done for a steelworker the past decade?
By failing to build a conservative economic plan that can work for all Americans and then failing to sell our vision in a clear and convincing fashion in all corners of the country from Wall Street to 125th Street, we have left the field wide open for Trump. Within reason, conservatism and populism are not at odds, for what good is a policy that does not benefit most of the populace? Who is better positioned to argue that their policies will help people than the party promising to return power to the people? If there is no conservative party in 2020 or 2024, it won’t be because of Trump. It will be because Republicans have failed miserably in being the Opportunity Party.