Mark Cohen, Boulder. There is still time left, but today it appears likely Hillary Clinton will crush Donald Trump in an electoral landslide. She may even win traditionally Republican states such as Montana, Arizona, Utah, Iowa, and Louisiana. Nobody knows how such a colossal defeat might affect the GOP, but it is possible such a crushing blow is just what the GOP needs.
For nearly one hundred years, Americans have seen Democrats as representing liberalism and Republicans as the party of conservatism. For most of that time, the difference between liberalism and conservatism was their openness to change. Conservatives tended to embrace traditional values and be cautious about change. This definition served Democrats well between the Great Depression and 1980. (FDR, Truman, JFK, LBJ, Carter). The only Republican Presidents during that period were Eisenhower and Nixon.
But sometime around 1980 Republicans got smart and redefined conservatism. Instead of defining conservatism as being cautious about change, the GOP defined it as being about “limited government.”
Nobody likes “big government,” so this was great marketing. At the same time the Christian right, led by Jerry Falwell, became influential in Republican politics. The GOP became a coalition of (1) supply siders, (2) social conservatives, and (3) libertarians. This worked well for a time. (Reagan, Bush 41, Bush 43). It was always an uneasy alliance, though. Supply siders did not care about social issues. Libertarians disagreed with social conservatives on social issues.
To hold the alliance together and get voters to support economic policies that actually hurt the middle class, Republicans had to rely on wedge issues such as abortion, gay rights, and guns. The so-called Reagan Democrats were blue-collar voters that would have benefitted from higher taxes on the rich and more social programs, but the GOP succeeded in convincing them that Democrats would kill babies, eliminate traditional marriage, take their guns, and leave America defenseless.
The trouble with Republican reliance on wedge issues is that Americans are not always so dumb.
Occasionally they get it right. After twelve years of Reagan/Bush, Americans saw that trickle-down economics was a fallacy and wasn’t working. So, with an assist from Ross Perot, Bill Clinton became President. Republicans could not fathom it. How could Americans elect a draft-dodging, pot-smoking, womanizer over a World War II hero? Republicans never accepted the legitimacy of the 1992 election and the GOP became the party of obstruction. Contrary to Republican predictions, Bill Clinton steered a moderate course, grew the economy, and proved a prudent commander in chief. By and large, Bill Clinton ended the GOP’s ability to paint Democrats as “soft on defense,” a ploy Republicans had used successfully since Vietnam.
Americans reelected Clinton in a landslide in 1996. The GOP doubled down on obstruction, not only impeaching Clinton for lying about a blow job, but even denying him authority to settle a baseball strike because they did not want him to get credit for any type of victory.
With Clinton’s success and popularity, the Democrats were primed for victory in 2000, but the combination of Al Gore’s poor campaign and Ralph Nader’s narcissistic third party run was enough to throw the election to the Supreme Court, which installed W. as President by a 5-4 decision. John Kerry turned out to be an equally poor candidate for the Democrats in 2004. So the country endured eight years of W. (Democrats tend to naively believe that simply having the smarter candidate with the more popular views will win. Too often, they nominate policy wonks that don’t know how to fight dirty. See, e.g., Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry. Say what you will about the Clintons, but they know how to fight Republicans and they understand that the most noble campaign is worthless if you don’t win).
Along came Barack Obama in 2008, an inspiring candidate with the good luck to be seeking the office after the worst presidency in history. Having again seen what happens when you put Republicans in the White House, Americans voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Once again, the GOP could not believe it had lost. How could Americans elect a black community organizer named “Hussein” over a war hero like John McCain? The GOP became even more obstructionist. To hold their coalition together they moved from being the party of limited government to being completely anti-government. They also promoted subtle, if not overt, racism.
The result of all this obstruction, division, and racism? Donald Trump. Why might Trump be good for the GOP in the long term? Because the GOP may finally begin to realize that most Americans want a certain amount of government. Voters may complain about taxes and regulation, but they recognize their necessity. The GOP may finally begin to realize it can’t win by being divisive and obstructionist. Most Americans want government to work. The GOP may finally begin to realize that most Americans want to get along with each other. For the first time in thirty years, Republicans are starting to talk about reasonableness and moderation as good things.
How will it play out? There are several possibilities. The first is that the Republican pendulum will begin to swing back to the center. Many Republican leaders are now disavowing Trump. When 2020 rolls around, the leadership may realize that a divisive conservative like Ted Cruz can never capture 270 electoral votes. There will be an opening for a true moderate. Not a phony moderate like John Kasich, a conservative that appears moderate simply because he acts like an adult. I don’t know who it will be, but the opportunity will be there. A Republican that embraces the need for higher taxes on the wealthy, environmental regulation, a pragmatic foreign policy not focused exclusively on military force, and social tolerance would be a formidable candidate. Think Colin Powell or Jon Huntsman.
The second possibility is the splintering of the party. The true libertarians that never agreed with the GOP on social issues may flee to the Libertarian Party. Social conservatives may abandon the party as it swings to the center on those issues to remain viable. It is impossible to know what the repercussions might be. In the short term, it would leave us with a one-party system, but would also be a boon for both the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. (It would be difficult for the Libertarians and Greens to join forces because Libertarians favor less regulation and Greens want more regulation). So, while the Democrats might have a lock on the White House in the short term, we might see more Libertarians and Greens elected at the local level. One might emerge as the alternative to the Democratic Party.
A third possibility, seldom considered, is that pragmatic Republicans might jump to the Democratic Party in an example of the law of unintended consequences. The Democratic Party has always been a coalition of northern liberals and southern moderates. We might begin to see more moderates and even conservatives running as Democrats, thus setting up the Democratic Party for its own internal struggle.
Will Trump destroy the GOP or save it? Only his hairdresser knows for sure.