Donald Trump is a disaster for the party. Just ask any pundit out there. But that analysis misses the trees for the forest (to reverse a famous phrase). It’s true that Trump is alienating a broad swathe of America, minorities, women, college educated Republicans, but it is also true that Trump is paving the way forward for the GOP.
How so you might be asking? Well, to answer that particular question we must look at the state of the GOP at the Presidential level. It’s not good. The GOP does control the Senate and has a lock on the House for the foreseeable future but both are based on political conditions absent from the Presidency (House-districts leaning red and Senate control on domination of sparsely populated of red states).
Today, the GOP resembles its former self courtesy of the 30’s and 40’s where they lost five straight Presidential elections. Republicans have only won the Presidency twice in the last six tries and the popular vote only once (Bush 2004). Heading into 2016 the demographic and electoral headwinds facing the party are fierce.
But, the GOP also resembles the Democratic Party of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Weakened by ideological squabbles and internal debates the party’s only victory between 1976 and 1988 belonged to a former Governor of Georgia who ran a distinctly independent and culturally based campaign. In 1980, after Carter’s defeat, Democrats nominated two consistent liberals who went on to lose badly in 1984 and 1988.
The party’s activist base was angry with the party after Carter and kept it from nominating candidates that were more ideologically in sync with the country (think support of death penalty, foreign policy hawks, reforming welfare). Despite the best efforts of the party the base demanded ideological conformation which often split the party in two.
Somewhat similarly today, the GOP shares these issues. Republican candidates are forced to reaffirm their opposition to same sex marriage before they can say it is a state’s rights issue. Republicans are also forced to walk a tightrope on abortion, basically being forced to choose between absolutely opposing abortion in any case (even life of the mother) or be labelled pro-abortion by certain wings of the party. Most notably, Marco Rubio was forced to walk back his support of immigration reform and now sounds more like Donald Trump. In essence, the GOP’s ability to find a candidate that can exhibit a certain degree of ideological flexibility from their party is being severely hampered (just as Mitt Romney).
You could argue Democrats are undergoing the same situation this cycle and you would be right. Moderate Hillary Clinton has walked back virtually everything she has done or said as First Lady (support welfare reform, balanced budgets, strong defense), Senator (oppose immigration reform and giving drivers licenses to illegals, voting for the Iraq War, supporting the Cuban embargo) and Secretary of State (hawkish defense views, TPP, etc.). But unlike the GOP, Clinton is more connected to the Presidential electorate on cultural issues that transcend partisan politics. Obama helped blaze this path for her and she plans to exploit it for all its worth.
Republicans, in a sense, need an Obama. They need a candidate that can shift the rules of the game and take moderate stances in the nomination process, win, and not come out tarred for the general election. They need a candidate that can win over base voters beyond ideology and demand their respect and votes throughout the long campaign. They need a Donald Trump. Just not this year’s version.
In 1991, Democrats found their Donald Trump, they just did not know it yet. Bill Clinton, a little known Governor of Arkansas, catapulted to his party’s nomination due to his strong support among blue collar whites and blacks nationwide, particularly the South.
Clinton did not immediately pivot to the center in the general election. He didn’t need to. He won the Democratic nomination as a centrist. His history of working with the black community, being ingrained in their culture while simultaneously showing he maintained support for downscale white policy preferences allowed him to talk welfare reform, balanced budgets and reforming Healthcare in the primary. The centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which had advocated such a strategy since the early 80’s, was finally proven right.
The proof was in the 1992 Presidential election. Though some argue Clinton won only because of Ross Perot polls show that Perot votes split down the middle between Bush and Clinton. Clinton had signaled to white voters that he was a “New Democrat” in the mold of Jimmy Carter and willing to challenge the entrenched liberal and black wings of his party. Clinton initially went left after his election and was rebuked for it in the Republican Revolution. But in 1996, after working with a GOP Congress to get welfare reform, voters (black and white) rewarded him with a resounding 9 percent win. Between 1980 and 1988 Democrats lost the white vote by over 20 percent. Clinton lost the white vote to Bush by 2 percent in 1992 and 1 percent in 1996. Democrats have never been so strong among the group since. In a way, Clinton’s persona mattered more than ideology.
Enter Trump. Today, Trump is polling around 25 percent in all four early states and nationally. His support has largely remained unchanged since August no matter what he says. Insult veterans. No damage. Pick fights with Jeb Bush. No problem. Insult the views of evangelicals and minorities. No bad.
It is telling that many Republicans have largely dropped their litmus test attacks on Trump. Jeb Bush based his campaign on it to no avail. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and John Kasich have all tried and failed to dislodge the Donald’s support with varying themes of “he’s a liberal” to “he supports abortion” to “he donated to Clinton.” No impact.
Just look at who Trump is. A former Democrat as recently as 2012 who has donated to dozens of Democrats, Clinton included, and in his own words used to be “very pro-choice.” He supported universal healthcare and gun control. He barely conceals he wants to raise taxes on the wealthy.
Trump says he has since seen the light. But on many cultural issues important to the base he seems not to. He called gay marriage a “settled issue” and said at a campaign stop in Iowa he has never asked God for forgiveness. No wonder Rubio, Cruz and Carson are winning evangelicals today.
But evangelicals are not and have never been Trump’s constituency. His constituency is that of the “forgotten voter.” The man that feels his blue-collar roots are insulted. The Iowan farmer angry at the PC, “I can’t call it what it is culture” of America. These voters are willing to give Trump a pass, a special absolution, they have not offered to other candidates in the past.
Part of it is his style. Trump supporters love the fact he’s blunt, unpackaged and not polished. They don’t mind during debates that he appears flustered over foreign policy and woefully unprepared to be Commander-in-Chief. In fact, they will even hate Fox News for him.
When Bloomberg’s John Heilemann asked Trump backers in New Hampshire what they thought of him the responses he received were, among others, He speaks the truth,” He doesn’t care what people think,” “He’s unchoreographed,” “He is honest,” “I like his roughness,” and “He’s not a politician.” Indeed, the New York Times and many analysts consider Trump’s staying power a tribute to his personality and style, not his policy preferences.
Trump benefits from his outsider status. Like Carson and Fiorina he has the benefit of running against political interests despite being involved in it for decades (just not in the elected way). Again, in New Hampshire, supporters were impressed by his business exploits and viewed his brand as synonymous with “winning.”
Trump’s no fool. He did not get rich for nothing nor has he cultivated a business empire without being savvy. The issues of the day have fueled his rise and he has exploited them well. His incessant focus on the border and illegals has struck a chord with the blue-collar voter that feels the culture of the country is changing. In its simplest terms, Trump has captured the hearts of the voters who feel like “I obey the laws, why cannot everybody else?”
Due to his lead in a scattered GOP field, most polls show him leading on not just the issue of illegal immigration but terrorism and the economy. However, Trump has almost 100 percent name ID while many candidates not named Bush are still building their name recognition.
Trump has forged a connection with Republicans that transcends typical issues. Okay, at least a quarter of self-identified Republicans. Admittedly, what these voters like about Trump are what turns the rest of the GOP and much of America away from the mogul. The GOP does not need the Trump of today. They need the Trump of the future.
In Marco Rubio’s candidacy much of Trump’s appeal is present. He does not have the gruff edges and is much more polished but his story of immigrant success appeal to the broader base of the GOP. It helps he also fits comfortably within the party’s ideological tent (minus immigration).
The party could also look to the states to find a future Trump. In California, Republicans pulled off a twofer when they recalled Democratic Governor Gray Davis and also convinced Arnold Schwarzenegger to run as a Republican. Sure, he was not that conservative, but he governed far more right of center over his two terms than Democrat would have. Conservatives were drawn to his pull on such an issue. In New Jersey in 2009, Chris Christie ran as pro-life and anti-gay marriage, but he did not need to specifically state these things (except to brag) to get base support. In turn, Independents felt he was not an ideologue and pulled the lever for him. Last year, in Massachusetts, Illinois and Maryland, the base coalesced around socially liberal but fiscally conservative candidates and allowed party nominees to woo the center on calls for returning to fiscal responsibility.
Maybe Eisenhower offers the GOP the best path forward. Between 1932 and 1952 the GOP lost 5 straight Presidential elections on average by big margins. But Eisenhower used his persona and personal appeal to overcome serious deficiencies within the party.
Republicans had long attacked the New Deal for its expansion of government, spending, and role in people’s lives. While the Supreme Court struck down some aspects of the era and the public rebuked the Presidents FDR and Truman they never abandoned their loyalty to the candidates or their efforts. In every Presidential election it seemed Republicans overplayed their hand.
Republicans needed somebody from outside the system. Somebody with an appeal that transcended the bloody battles over the New Deal and new political fabric of the nation. Somebody who accepted the welfare state but did not embrace it.
Both parties lobbied fiercely for Eisenhower’s loyalties but in the end he ran as a new kind of Republican. One not beholden to many interests. In his announcement in January 1952, Eisenhower chided Democrats for spending so much but he also offered no critique of the welfare state. That election, Eisenhower carried every region but the South.
Of course, doing this and finding such a candidate are much harder. The creation of the Internet and all it has spawned have made being an outsider a harder claim to keep. Further, ideological interests are far more entrenched in politics than 1952 thanks to campaign finance, outside spending, and primaries and caucuses.
But that does not mean it’s impossible. Marco Rubio is probably the best short-term solution to the GOP’s issues. Heck, even Ted Cruz might be a temporary patch. Long-term, the party should be looking to somebody who speaks to both the past and the future. A candidate in which Americans can find things to relate to more than just ideology.
Despite his ideology and rhetoric Trump has given America a glimpse into something new but not new. Voters, even highly ideological ones, are more than the sum of their issue positions. They also vote their values, relations and cultural feelings. They want somebody who relates to them personally. They want somebody with a business background.
Rectifying such conflicting feelings within a divided GOP is difficult. The party’s college educated future base want a candidate who inspires and talks about what is right with America. The party’s blue-collar base wants a candidate who embodies the America they grew up in and feel is slipping away.
When the GOP nominates a candidate who can manage to thread the needle between these feelings and do so in a way that does not disrespect or turn off the general electorate the GOP will have its Eisenhower, its Schwarzenegger, its future Reagan!