For readers who requested this in one (very long) post, here is a lightly edited version of my recommendation for how the Republican Party might approach this election cycle.
It’s hard to count the number of people who have asked me whether the Republican Party can survive this election. And while I have been tempted at times to draw comparisons to the Whigs, today’s parties are highly institutionalized and decentralized. In many places the Republican brand is strong, and it’s hard to see the party being swept away even in the event of a catastrophic outcome at the top of the ticket. At the same time, forces have been tearing apart the national party from the inside. The Trump nomination is a symptom of these divisions, which for years have put Republicans at a deep disadvantage in national elections and made it impossible for them to govern. We’re well past the point where party leaders can address their problems by issuing a report saying things have to change. But like any problem that took years to develop and was compounded by bad choices, there is no easy fix. Yes, there is a way forward, but it’s going to take courage and leadership. It’s going to mean going into the wilderness to regroup, which is what Republicans should have done eight years ago. The party is now living with the consequences of the choice not to do that, and things really will get worse if they don’t get it right this time.
My proposal cuts against the short-term thinking that drives the political process. It involves making five excruciatingly difficult choices that run counter to how parties are built to act, which is why I don’t think anything like it will be considered by the political class. Still, I offer it as a serious and good faith recommendation to enable Republicans to reverse the significant damage they have done to their ability to function as a national party over the past seven-plus years.
Think of it as a five step program for a party that badly needs to wean itself off a lethal addiction to its base.
The argument is long but it ends with Republican leaders repudiating Trump’s candidacy and doing it now, when it can still make a difference. This will most certainly cause vast electoral damage in the short run, but it will avoid even more brutal choices in the long run and it has the virtue of being the right thing to do when faced with nominating someone who many Republicans have acknowledged is not qualified to hold the office he seeks.
STEP #1: Choose Defeat Over Catastrophe
The first of the five steps is for Republicans to make peace with the idea that sometimes the best outcome of an election is to lose.
Donald Trump has put the Republican Party in a bigger bind than its leaders may realize. They understand the risk he poses to their ability to win the election if he is unable to find a way to appeal to a multicultural, multigenerational electorate that looks nothing like Republican primary voters. And they are fully cognizant of what that could mean to
their Senate and even their House majority should the worst happen. But they have probably not thought through what it would mean for them if he won. Is a Republican congress really going to permit him to build a wall along the Rio Grande? Engage in mass deportations? Ban Muslims from the country?
OK, so even if it isn’t too much of a stretch for you to imagine that they would, Trump still could not satisfy his core supporters because through his unrealistic proposals he is really promising to reverse the demography behind the Obama coalition, to return the country to a time when white voters really could decide elections. This is the same implicit promise Republican leaders have been making to their base for years, the same unfulfilled promise that angered them to the point where they rallied behind Trump in the first place. No one can roll back the 21st century. To try would mean governing at the expense of the emerging electorate, while the inevitable failure would alienate Trump’s supporters like the Republican leadership already has. It’s a recipe for losing the entire country.
And this may be the best case scenario. A President Trump who governed like he has campaigned, saying whatever comes to his mind and responding aggressively to any perceived slight, courts catastrophe. Does the Republican Party want to be associated with this possibility? Do they want to take that risk?
There is no good outcome with Trump. If he wins, he will crush the Republican base because he will be unable to follow through on the intent behind his promises, and he will alienate the rest of the country. We already know what that looks like because it is at the root of congressional dysfunction, where “freedom caucus” members act out when they are prevented from shutting down the government or defaulting on the debt, the base gets angry, and everyone else turns away in disgust. How does this advance the cause of Republican regeneration?
It is highly likely that the voters will save Republicans from this nightmare by keeping Trump out of the White House. But if this is the best that awaits after November, why fight for it? Losing is always costly, but winning under these conditions will prove to be much worse. Political professionals will contend that it’s worth it to prevent Democrats from filling the Supreme Court vacancy and to protect Republican officeholders down ballot. I recognize that losing these advantages would be a high price to pay; that’s why it’s an excruciating choice. But I will argue in step four that these advantages may already be lost. And I will argue in step two that some of those down ballot seats should be lost as a necessary step toward healing the party.
STEP #2: Follow Your Own Advice
The Republican Party has had remarkable success winning governorships, state legislatures, House and Senate seats. Yet they have been shut out of the White House for eight years and run a high risk of losing it again. Both of these outcomes can be traced to the same source: Republican base voters.
Older white voters turn out, especially when they are angry or feeling threatened by economic or social conditions. Their anger is as genuine as their motivation to do something about it, and Republicans have skillfully parlayed it into an impressive run of down ballot victories. Remember when Democrats had overwhelming House majorities and a filibuster-proof Senate? That was six years ago, and in the interim Republicans have assembled their largest House majority in generations to go along with complete or partial control of a significant majority of states.
At the same time, their inability to expand their appeal beyond these voters exacts great costs when the rest of the country turns out, which happens to coincide with national elections. John McCain and Mitt Romney couldn’t risk alienating their base and were therefore unable to find a way to appeal to the voters of color, young voters and single women who twice elected Barack Obama. This year, Donald Trump hardly seems to be trying.
Hence the fundamental paradox of the modern Republican Party. They cannot win down ballot elections without their core voters but they cannot win national elections with them.
There is no simple solution to this problem, but the issue is so central to the emerging tragedy of Donald Trump that the sooner they make the excruciating choice to address it the sooner they will begin the process of recovery. Therefore:
The second of the five steps is for Republicans to relinquish their down ballot advantages for the chance to compete nationwide.
Republican elites are aware of the problem. They addressed it in their analysis of the Romney debacle, optimistically
called the Growth and Opportunity Project by the RNC (and the 2012 autopsy report by everyone else). Let me quote a brief but salient section of that report:
The Republican Party must focus its efforts to earn new supporters and voters in the following demographic communities: Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Indian Americans, Native Americans, women, and youth. This priority needs to be a continual effort that affects every facet of our Party’s activities, including our messaging, strategy, outreach, and budget. Unless the RNC gets serious about tackling this problem, we will lose future elections (emphasis mine).
Read that last sentence again, the one about losing future elections. You see, in 2013 party leaders already knew what was coming if they didn’t kick their dependency on white voters. So what happened? For one thing, the 2014 off-year contest, where those same white voters handed Republicans victory after overwhelming victory. This followed the colossal failure that was the Marco Rubio-led attempt at immigration reform, which stalled in the House when a group of nativist representatives prevented it from coming to a vote. The base wasn’t going to let the party budge on immigration, but they were willing (at least back then) to reward the party at the ballot box, so why make hard choices?
Republicans have been able to amplify the support of these turbocharged voters with some well-timed gerrymandering. By sweeping statewide races in 2010, Republicans were able to control the redistricting process in large states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, drawing lines to protect state legislative gains and maximize the number of Republican House districts. This has unintentionally forced incumbent Republicans to the right, as the threat of facing reactionary primary opponents became greater than the threat of losing to a Democrat. As they move right, they run out of room to compromise. So by pressing their electoral advantage, Republicans have made it impossible to function as a legislative party, which by definition requires compromise. They are musclebound—in power but hardly powerful—and dependent on an angry base, low off-year turnout, and electoral gimmickry.
This is the profile of a party trying not to lose its grip on power, not a party on the verge of claiming a mandate to govern. The voters who produced these down ballot victories represent a shrinking share of the electorate, and they are preventing Republicans from winning high turnout presidential elections. In other words, they are preventing Republicans from having the chance to be a competitive national party. The only way to change this—the only way to implement the recommendations of the autopsy report—is to face up to them.
This means putting down ballot advantages at risk in exchange for no immediate gain. No party, no elected official wants to do this. But it is the only way I can see to untie the knot that secures the Republican’s larger dilemma, and it is not unreasonable to expect this choice to be taken from them if voters trash Republicans down ballot should Trump self-destruct. So why not get out ahead of the curve? The advantages of doing this are not immediate but they are enormous. Taking steps toward being a competitive national party means taking steps toward being a governing party again one day. It means stepping away from the forces that created Donald Trump. And it would free Republicans to address the anger at the heart of Trump’s candidacy by toning down the rhetoric that keeps their voters believing the country is five minutes away from armageddon.
STEP #3: Tone Down the Rhetoric
At a 2008 campaign rally, John McCain was approached by a woman who claimed she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because of false things she had “read about him.” McCain pushed back. “No ma’am. No ma’am,” the candidate said as he interrupted her rant. “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” At the same event, when a man said he was “scared of an Obama presidency” because he “cohorts with domestic terrorists,” the candidate defended Obama as a “decent person”—and was booed by his supporters.
McCain’s attempts at civility were lost in a campaign defined by the wild, incoherent diatribes of Sarah Palin, who owed her fifteen minutes to McCain himself. Having played on the rage and anger of talk radio and come up short, McCain tried in the campaign’s waning moments to un-roil the waters. He could not. Anger unleashed is hard to contain, especially when propelled by a torrent of hyperbolic rhetoric.
There weren’t enough angry white voters to put McCain over the top in 2008, or Mitt Romney in 2012. But the strategy worked brilliantly during the off years. The problem is, you can’t keep an angry electorate on the shelf and take it out when it serves your purposes. And when base voters twice handed Republicans stunning off-year victories and all they got in return was scores of pointless votes to repeal Obamacare, they turned their anger on Republican leaders who failed to fix the larger-than-life threat they had created by turning Barack Obama into an alien, illegitimate, un-American figure. So now the party is saddled with Donald Trump, the grotesque but fitting culmination of a strategy of anger. Therefore:
The third of the five steps is for Republican leaders and officials to confront rather than condone the outrageous and angry rhetoric of talk radio and cable television.
In Donald Trump, Republicans have a candidate who embodies talk radio. This is exactly what they don’t need. Whipping the base to a froth has created in Trump a force that party leaders cannot control, and they are now
experiencing what it is like to have that rage directed at them. If anger is the fuel that propells the GOP engine, we are seeing what happens when the gas line ruptures and flames begin to engulf the vehicle. This should be enough to motivate party leaders to remove the fuel once they extinguish the flames.
It is convenient to blame the fire on Republican voters. Conservative columnist Michael Gerson recently did just that, deriding the base for choosing a nominee who speaks the language and reflects the values of talk radio, and while his diagnosis of the problem is correct he misstates the cause. The worst rhetoric may be on talk radio, the Internet and cable television, but Republican leaders have as a deliberate strategy echoed and amplified those messages as a way to keep the base in a state of perpetual agitation.
Since 2008, Republican elites have fanned anger by delegitimizing Barack Obama, questioning his birth, his national origin, his religion, his loyalty to America. They continue to do this today. What does it say about the official Republican view of the incumbent’s legitimacy when their argument against holding hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland is that we must wait until we have a legitimately elected president, as if we didn’t get one in 2012? It says Republicans have benefited from denigrating Obama and his coalition.
But the strategy of reinforcing right-wing media messages has reached its limit and become broadly counterproductive. It prevented Republicans from reaching out to the emerging electorate as the RNC’s post-Romney autopsy report said it must. And now it has produced Trump, a candidate whose numerous personal grievances channel the grievances of the frenzied base, whose irrational behavior makes perfect sense in a looking-glass world. Republican leaders may not have created this world but they have validated it, and they continue to validate it every time they do not challenge it.
Repudiating angry rhetoric requires leadership, which should be far easier to find once excruciating step #2 is completed and party elites have liberated themselves from the need to win down ballot with the most problematic elements of their base. Once there is nothing left to lose, it will no longer be necessary for Republican elites to declare moral bankruptcy every time one of them supports but does not endorse their nominee, or announces plans to vote for him after denouncing his words as racist because, well, it’s never really clear why. This is pure cowardice in the face of voters who were pushed to irrational levels by a right-wing media enabled by the very Republican leaders who now resemble pretzels.
How liberating would it be for them to relinquish this straitjacket of lies and stop parroting and condoning some of the ugliest rhetoric saturating the popular culture. Yes, it will anger a lot of voters—for now. But there is no way around it if Republicans want to return to competitiveness and respectability, and reclaim their party from its most reactionary elements. The time to do this was eight years ago, when Republicans had the opportunity to challenge rather than seek to destroy everything touched by the Obama administration. They didn’t, and the job is much harder now. But it isn’t going to get any easier after Donald Trump.
The greatest advantage of toning down the rhetoric is the opportunity it presents Republicans to be a functioning opposition party, what they should have become after losing the 2008 election. This will lead naturally to the realization that as the opposition, Republicans will forfeit for now the ability to set the terms of national debate. Without its angry base, Republicans will be a minority party, probably for some time. Because they are not prepared to lead a highly diverse nation, there is no way for them to emerge as the dominant party in a future alignment without first spending time in the wilderness and regenerating their intellectual core.
STEP #4: Embrace the Wilderness
I have said elsewhere that radicalization of a portion of the Republican base has created a de facto reactionary party within the shell of what once was a center-right conservative party. The differences between reactionaries and conservatives are profound and explain why there is no common ground between them. Conservatives temperamentally and doctrinally seek to put the brakes on government. Reactionaries want to shut it down or destroy it. Conservatives can play a role in left-leaning party systems by engaging in debate with left or center-left parties and slowing them down. Reactionaries can never engage. They have no room for anyone who would espouse a positive role for government.
For the past several years, Republicans have attempted to assert themselves as a majority or governing party while succumbing repeatedly to the wishes of their radicalized constituencies. We know how this has worked out. But once they relinquish their electoral prospects, jettison the base and tone down the rhetoric, Republicans will be free to settle into the unfamiliar role of being a functioning opposition party. Therefore:
The fourth of the five steps is for Republican leaders to embrace the wilderness and come to terms with being a party of loyal opposition.
This, too, will be an excruciating choice for a once-proud party which sees itself as the natural majority force in American politics, and whose dominance of the federal legislature and a majority of states gives the false appearance of majority status. The rot at the top of the ticket is a more accurate indicator of what’s happening inside. Like a baseball team with aging stars and a depleted farm system, Republicans will need to accept the prospect of a string
of rebuilding seasons before they can compete again. These will be seasons of drudgery but the team cannot compete in its present condition and will only postpone the inevitable if it tries.
For decades, Republicans experienced winning seasons with a functioning coalition. Today, Republicans cling to the memory of Ronald Reagan as though the mention of his name can cure all ills. The Republican debates this year were filled with hagiographic references to Reagan. But 1988 was 28 years ago and 1980 was 36 years ago. Anyone under 40 has at best childhood memories of the Reagan administration, and Reagan himself would barely recognize his party, which has been unable to build a new national governing coalition around a radicalized base that would dismiss Reagan himself as too squishy and quick to compromise with liberals. The Reagan coalition was already strained under the weight of the profligate spending and neocon adventurism of the Bush years, but when Republicans assumed an obstructionist posture following Obama’s election it entered the realm of the dysfunctional.
Since 2009, the party has been guided by a cynical strategy to obstruct and delegitimize Barack Obama on the expectation that he could never reassemble the coalition that elected him. This was the Republican plan: to give nothing, reject the administration’s right to govern, blame Obama for the ensuing dysfunction, declare him a failure, and campaign on fixing the mess they largely created. Republicans believed they were still the natural majority party in a fundamentally center-right country, and that a one-time mix of Bush fatigue, war fatigue and economic free-fall conspired to elect Obama in 08.
When this premise proved incorrect, party leaders called for a course correction. But they couldn’t pull it off, because their efforts to obstruct and delegitimize had worked too well, at least with the base. In hindsight, the decision to obstruct made possible the subsequent radicalization of the base because it normalized anti-government reactionary behavior. This was a critical mistake. It precluded Republicans from having a real chance to compete for the White House in 2012, foreshadowed the rise of Donald Trump, and cost the party eight years when they could have been rebuilding their brand.
So eight years later, Republicans are no closer to having a national majority or being a governing party. Imagine where things might be now had those eight years been put to good use, opposing Obama philosophically but working with him where there was opportunity while taking time in the wilderness to regroup, to figure out where conservative ideas fit in a 21st century world. In this counterfactual world, Republicans no doubt would have been less successful down ballot, but there would also be no Donald Trump. Kevin McCarthy, the incumbent House Majority Leader, reportedly said on inauguration eve 2009 that “if you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority.” A more insightful reading of the situation would have been that the voters just put you in the minority, and they did it for a reason. Take some time there and figure out why. Instead, Republicans thought they saw a quick way back without recognizing the deferred costs of confronting rather than considering the broader electorate.
The bill is now coming due in the form of Donald Trump and the threat he poses to the party’s future. Having lost eight rebuilding years to a strategy of obstruction, Republicans are on the verge of losing four more. The longer they delay their time in the wilderness, the longer they delay their comeback. You need look no further than the demise of the New Deal coalition to see how long the renewal process can take. With the exception of the anomalous 1976 Watergate election, it took Democrats 24 years after Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 loss to figure out how to keep Republicans out of the White House. Much of that time was spent watching coalition partners battle each other while party leaders tinkered with the nomination rules to advance candidates who wouldn’t be rejected outright by the public, only to see those candidates go down to defeats of historic proportions. It took years for Democrats to figure out the electorate no longer wanted what they were selling, longer still to figure out a corrective.
Republicans should start this process now. And the most emphatic and productive way to start is by clearly and unequivocally repudiating their standard bearer.
STEP #5: Repudiate Trump
Here are some of the things Republican supporters have said about Donald Trump, courtesy of Talking Points Memo:
“Well, look, I’m a Republican, I’m on the ballot in November. I support the Republican nominee for president. It’s pretty much that simple.” (OK Rep. Tom Cole)
“Do I think that he will modify his positions or maybe explain them more completely? Yes, I think he will. I’m hopeful that the leaders in positions of responsibility in our country will give him the opportunity to do that and to enlighten him when they think he’s misinformed.” (GA Gov. Nathan Deal)
“I have an obligation to support him. It would be pretty hypocritical of me not to support Mr. Trump. I do think he’s not our perfect nominee.” (TX Rep. Joe Barton)
“I’ve endorsed Trump because he’s our candidate. . . . Whether you like him or not, the people voted for him. The people spoke.” (TX Rep. Roger Williams)
“I’ve said for a year I’m going to support the nominee and Donald Trump won the old-fashioned way. He got the most votes.” (WY Sen. Mike Barasso)
“He’s our nominee. He’s the only one there.” (OK Rep. Markwayne Mullin)
“You don’t always go on the field with the perfect team, but you still go out there to win.” (GA Rep. Lynn Westmoreland)
“So it is not the choice I had hoped to be presented with, but I guess this is where we are.” (PA Sen. Pat Toomey)
“We need to come to grips with the reality.” (TX Gov. Greg Abbott)
Remember, these quotes are from Republican supporters. Then there’s House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called Trump’s remarks about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge of Mexican descent presiding over the Trump University fraud case, the “textbook definition of a racist comment”—without withdrawing his support. Or as the New York Times headline put it, “Paul Ryan Calls Donald Trump’s Attack on Judge ‘Racist,’ but Still Backs Him.” And of course
there’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who admits that Trump doesn’t know a lot, doesn’t exhibit the seriousness of purpose expected of a president, and has said “a whole series of things” that McConnell finds objectionable. But McConnell is happy to support Trump as long as he “keeps to the script” and doesn’t show voters what he really believes. That’s the only path to victory, and victory matters above all else.
These Republicans are trying to do the impossible by simultaneously supporting and distancing themselves from their nominee. They are all supporting Trump because he is a Republican, but they often won’t mention his name and dare not acknowledge his views. Try sustaining that contradiction for the next five months. And why? Because somehow Hillary Clinton would be worse than an ill-tempered, unprepared candidate who spews racist invective?
I have heard Republicans express the hope that he can be coached or contained, or that he will change. He won’t. There are no mysteries about Donald Trump—he has been a public figure for thirty-plus years. This is who he is. His statements are not gaffes; they are what he thinks. And what he thinks about most is himself. His campaign is not about the country or the party or its members who struggle hard to find a way to embrace him from a distance, noses held. They may implore him to tone it down, but he will disregard their wishes because their wishes are not important to him. He expects only their loyalty, and if he does not get it, then they are losers. That’s how Trump operates, and that’s why every Republican who embraces him in whole or in part is diminished.
There’s another way.
Consider the words of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said outright that he could not support Donald Trump because he has not “displayed the judgment and temperament to serve as Commander in Chief.”
Was that so hard?
Lindsey Graham is showing Republicans the way to the fifth step: Repudiate the nominee.
Nothing good can come from supporting Trump. Nothing good can come from going down to defeat with him, and nothing good can come from winning with him. So Republicans: let go of this election and walk away from your nominee. Do it now while it means something. To do otherwise makes you look craven, as though you would foist upon the American people someone you know to be unfit just to hold on to power. Repudiate him now and you can build the moral authority you lost through the cynical choice to marginalize and delegitimize Obama and his supporters, moral authority that will be your first stepping stone on the long road back to respectability and competitiveness in a complex, changing electorate.
It is evident to Lindsey Graham that Donald Trump is not suited to hold the office he seeks. It is evident to everyone trying to have it both ways by offering a non-endorsement. So why not just say it?
Say it out loud.
Say it like his primary opponents said it when no one believed Trump would be the nominee.
Say it like Republicans who have nothing to lose politically are saying it.
And once you have made the excruciating choices to jettison the election, relinquish your base, tone down the rhetoric and embrace the wilderness—the things you should have done eight years ago—once you have made these decisions, the choice to repudiate Trump will be easy and obvious. It will keep you from having to explain your support of him for the rest of your careers. You will forfeit the presidency and with it the Supreme Court. You almost certainly will lose the Senate and will have at best a narrow House majority. Your statewide legislative advantages will be reduced. You will be in the wilderness, where you need to be for now as you regroup and reconsider what it means to be a conservative in the 21st century.
These are painful outcomes. But they will give you something valuable: a genuine chance at renewal.
The country needs you to get it right this time.