Today’s GOP is not the GOP of Ronald Reagan, it is not even the GOP of George W. Bush. Many of the shibboleths that have underpinned GOP strategy for a quarter century, including the rules set forth by Grover Norquist, are no longer germane to GOP voters whose incomes have been stagnant for two decades or more. Instead, those voters have turned to the economic populism and nativism of Donald Trump.
The Republican Party has long been split between its establishment and conservative wings. This year was not supposed to be any different. There was expected to be an establishment lane and a conservative lane. Competitors in each lane would battle each other, and then the two remaining champions, one of the establishment and one of the conservative wing of the party, would fight for the future of the party.
This was the way things had been for a half century or more. It was Nelson Rockefeller vs. Barry Goldwater in 1964, Gerald Ford vs. Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980, George H.W. Bush vs. Pat Buchanan in 1988. What used to be wings of the party were now going to be called lanes.
There really was nothing new in this formulation, except for the terminology. It was Nelson Rockefeller vs. Barry Goldwater in 1964, Gerald Ford vs. Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980, George H.W. Bush vs. Pat Buchanan in 1988. What used to be wings of the party were now going to be called lanes.
But there was one significant difference introduced over the years. Beginning late in the Reagan years, Grover Norquist developed his coalition of single issue voting groups that became central to Republican electoral strategy over the ensuing quarter century. Norquist’s issues, including the famous no-tax pledge, along with anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-property and other faith based issues, reflected the GOPs appeal to southern Democrats and communities of faith.
While there continued to be candidates from the establishment and conservative wings of the party, overall Republican political strategy centered around fealty to the commitments that Norquist articulated. The notion of the Republican Party as a big tent became tightly circumscribed. It was no longer enough to be a person of balance and prudence; in Norquist’s world, to be a Republican candidate began with a commitment to certain non-negotiable positions, literal adherence to a party line.
Against that presumption of fealty to certain issues, Republican pundits were mortified to watch as Donald Trump trampled on one Republican shibboleth after another. He suggested the rich should pay higher taxes. He defended the services Planned Parenthood provides for women. He suggested Vladimir Putin should be our ally, and we should let Iranian troops should take care of ISIS. He said we should stop fighting wars and use that money instead to rebuild our own country. He defended eminent domain and the taking of private land for public purposes. He said the Iraq war was a huge mistake and he blamed George W. Bush for 9/11. And, most of all, he suggested that our entire political system has been corrupted by large individual and corporate contributors who give millions and millions of dollars to political campaigns, and get billions and billions of value back in return.
Donald Trump did all of this, and after each politically incorrect utterance, just when pundits thought he had gone too far and his campaign would finally crater, his standing in the polls remained rock steady or went up. Trump put to bed the theory of lanes, as in three states now, with vastly different slices of the Republican electorate, an economic populist and nativist during a time of economic anxiety, Trump trounced the Republican field in every voter demographic category, among moderates, conservatives, evangelicals and independents, among all ages and education levels. It is not just that Trump didn’t care about what GOP elites thought he was supposed to care about, but that Republican voters didn’t either. After two decades of stagnant middle class incomes, Grover Norquist’s rules and Ted Cruz’s conservative patter had simply lost much of their salience to many Republican voters. In that light, Donald Trump isn’t deviating from what it means to be a Republican, he is rediscovering it.
The neoconservative foreign policy that led us into Iraq has not been opposed just by Donald Trump on the Republican side, but also by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. And as Rand Paul has been preaching for years, this is not an un-republican stance. For the better part of the 20th century, the Republican Party preached caution in foreign policy, if not isolationism. Ronald Reagan led a massive defense buildup and escalated the rhetoric of the Cold War, but proved cautious with respect to actual conflict. In the 1996 Presidential campaign, Republican nominee Bob Dole castigated Democrats as the war party — a reference to the post-WWII wars in Korea and Vietnam launched by Democrats — and George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 arguing for more humility in foreign policy and against the nation building efforts of the Clinton administration in the Balkans and Haiti. However, neoconservatives won W’s ear, and after fifteen years of failed interventionist policies in the Middle East, it should not be surprising that many across the GOP are prepared to retreat back to the party’s more cautious roots.
Neither is Trump’s support for Planned Parenthood a break with GOP traditions. Planned Parenthood is an organization with long and deep Republican roots — Prescott Bush, father and grandfather to presidents — was among its leaders. Even the abortion issue was once a less partisan issue than it has become, as in the pre-Norquist years, support for a woman’s right to choose was evenly supported by Republicans and Democrats.
A key tenet of the Trump campaign has been the deep corrupting influence of political money and his rejection of campaign contributions. Trump’s critique of politics and money mirrors that of two unlikely bedfellows — Bernie Sanders on the left and billionaire Charles Koch on the right — each of whom share Trump’s view of a political system captive of companies seeking strategic and economic advantages that tap the federal budget and distort the competitive marketplace, all at the expense of the rest of the country.
While industries have long used Washington to serve their interests, the bailouts of the banks in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, coming on the heels of two decades of stagnant middle class incomes, led to increased public scrutiny of the intersection of the government and the supposedly free market economy. The “private profits, socialized risk” framing of the bailout of the financial sector by hedge fund manager David Einhorn encapsulated the critique that has underpinned the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, that political money has created a world where the federal government protects the wealthy and politically connected at the expense of average Americans.
The Republican and Democrat presidential candidates are each running campaigns that place them toward the extremes of the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders is a socialist, while Hillary Clinton is fighting to claim she is right there with him. Ted Cruz is as conservative a candidate as we have had in memory, while Marco Rubio is straining to match him stride for stride. Jeb Bush, a very conservative candidate by any traditional metric, was a center-right candidate in a year when there has been no market for moderation.
But even as candidates are striving to demonstrate their bona fides to the activists of their parties, the distinctions as to what constitutes a Democrat and what constitutes a Republican has in many respects blurred. Trump and Sanders are running anti-corporatist campaigns with respect to campaign money, while Marco, Ted and Hillary have accounts bursting with special interest cash. Trump and Sanders are staunchly opposed to free trade, while Clinton and Rubio will argue that free trade is essential to American leadership in the world. Even Bernie Sanders is not as much of an outlier as many presume. Critics of Sanders’ proposal to make public college tuition free make it sound like the opening shot of a new Bolshevik revolution, yet two years ago, to wide acclaim, Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam made the first two years of public college free for students in Tennessee.
It is increasingly apparent that Donald Trump is going to be the GOP nominee. While establishment Republicans are tying themselves into knots suggesting how Marco Rubio may yet wrest the nomination away from the New York billionaire, Trump is leading the field in a race designed by the Republican National Committee to favor an early front-runner. Between now and March 15th, thirty states will hold their primaries, and as of today Donald Trump is leading in every state polled by ten points or more, except for Ted Cruz’s home state of Texas. Based on the current state of play, and absent some dramatic event, it is reasonable to expect that by the time the polls close on March 15th, Donald Trump will have amassed as many as 950 of the 1,200 delegates required to secure the Republican nomination, while Marco Rubio may not have won a single one.
The conventional wisdom is that Hillary Clinton has the most to fear from Marco Rubio — and indeed she has proven herself to be vulnerable to competitors who can give a good speech — but a battle with Donald Trump should be what keeps her up at night. After the polls closed in South Carolina, Jeb Bush finally folded his tent. Jeb was a candidate whose profile, if not his politics, was most similar to Hillary’s — political pedigree, relevant executive experience in the world, detailed policy prescriptions, deep establishment ties, and tons and tons of big money — and he was pummeled by Trump, whose attacks came quickly and cut to the quick. Trump has proven himself to have an instinct for a candidate’s weak spots and an inclination to go for the jugular. Hillary is a candidate with glaring weak spots, and if Hillary finds herself up against Trump in the fall, she should be prepared for an onslaught of attacks that will include critiques he has already used to good effect against Jeb and that Bernie used to pull even with her early on, as well as other accusation that we can only imagine.
It is not simply Trump’s skills at political combat that should concern Hillary, but the political repositioning he has undertaken as Republican candidate, his willingness to embrace positions that have been at odds with Republican orthodoxy but that expand his appeal to voters across the political spectrum. No one in modern politics should understand what Trump is doing better than Bill Clinton. Clintonism, as it came to be known, is defined by the flexibility to read the electorate and triangulate among constituencies to optimize the political outcome. Bill Clinton ended welfare as we knew it, attacked Sister Souljah and cozied up to the banks to solidify white support and attract political contributions from Wall Street. In doing so, he secured his position in the political center and undermined the Republican monopoly on big money, all the while knowing that the left of his party had nowhere to go. In a similar manner, Hillary Clinton has effectively ended the Sanders insurgency — though his supporters have yet to understand this — by securing the black vote and daring the white progressives that support Bernie to stand against the minority communities whose welfare they believe they stand for.
If they meet in the fall, Trump will not be playing from the normal center-right Republican playbook. Instead he will attack Hillary from the left as well as from the right. He will pick up on Sanders’ foreign policy themes, on the failures of the war in Iraq, of regime change in Libya, and in Syria. He will go farther than Sanders has on political contributions, on Wall Street speeches, and bring back the selling of the Lincoln Bedroom. He will go after the soft corruption of the Clinton Foundation. And, much to Hillary’s chagrin, he will paint her with the high costs of ObamaCare, the payoffs to the industries that benefitted, and its failure to assure healthcare for the neediest Americans. As his Republican rivals have found, he will be light on policy substance and hard to pin down politically, but he will articulate issues that resonate with voters.
The GOP establishment seems unable to grasp that much of the Republican orthodoxy is simply less germane in a time of economic anxiety. It is notable that while each Republican candidate has proposed massive tax cuts to pay obeisance to Grover Norquist, those proposals have garnered little attention. It is not that Donald Trump is changing the party, the party was changing before he arrived. But he, like Bill Clinton, understood that the successful candidate would be the one that recognized that change and responded to it. Jeb Bush knew when he got into the race that today’s Republican Party is not the GOP of his father, or of his grandfather for that matter. But as he learned in South Carolina, it is not even the GOP of his brother anymore. It is becoming increasingly clear the Republican Party today is the GOP of Donald Trump. That is something that Marco Rubio and the establishment are only beginning to understand.
Artwork by Jay Duret