I have often said that Republicans faced a difficult choice after the 2008 election. Their economic policies had given us the Great Recession, while their militaristic foreign policy had given us torture, Guantanamo, and two seemingly endless wars in the Middle East. That led to massive electoral defeats in both the 2006 midterms and the 2008 general election.
The question facing Republican leaders was whether or not to double down on policies that had failed so miserably or go back to the drawing board and re-think their position. They did neither. Instead, they chose to simply obstruct everything Obama and the Democrats attempted to do. In order to justify that position, they inflamed their extremist base—leading to the development of the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus. When Republicans regained majorities in Congress, it became clear that they couldn’t govern and eventually their leader in the House, Speaker John Boehner, was ejected.
During the 2016 Republican primary, Jeb Bush was the candidate who most clearly embraced the idea of doubling down on the failed policies of the past. He ran on what his father once called “voodoo economics” combined with a militaristic foreign policy and lost spectacularly. Instead, the inflamed extremist base helped nominate Donald Trump. It has often been said that he is non-ideological. Jelani Cobb coined the phrase “resentment agenda” to describe his platform. It appealed to what Robert Jones described as “nostalgia voters.”
Trump’s campaign—with its sweeping promise to “make American great again”—triumphed by converting self-described “values voters” into what I’ve called “nostalgia voters.” Trump’s promise to restore a mythical past golden age—where factory jobs paid the bills and white Protestant churches were the dominant cultural hubs—powerfully tapped evangelical anxieties about an uncertain future.
As I wrote previously, the 1950s aren’t coming back, so that agenda is destined to fail.
Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin knows that. So she took a stab at outlining an agenda for a Republican candidate who might attempt to challenge Trump in a 2020 primary. What is most interesting about her list is that it demonstrates that Republicans still don’t have an alternative policy agenda. Included among the ten items are five that simply serve the purpose of denouncing Trumpism.
1. Character matters in public life
2. American institutions matter (i.e., separation of powers, states rights and the independence of the courts)
3. Racism, sexism and xenophobia have no place in public life
4. Denounce divisive and polarizing rhetoric
5. Transparency—free from conflicts of interest, cronyism and nepotism
The remaining five have to do with actual policies.
1. Criminal justice reform
2. Support for free trade, reasonable regulation, legal immigration and a tax code free from corporate carve-outs
3. A secure social safety net – reformed and modernized
4. K-12 education reform and worker training
5. American leadership in the world—including support for human rights and democratic governance
To the extent that social safety net and school reforms are not simply codes for doing away with those public programs, that sounds like an agenda where dialogue with Democrats is actually possible. In many ways, this is an admission that Democratic policies prevailed…because they work. The battle for Rubin is more about defeating the extremists in her own party who want to blow the whole thing up and the white nativists who pine for the 1950’s. That is the current state of the Republican Party.
It is unclear how this battle will end. But one thing seems clear: the Republican Party of George W. and Jeb Bush is in the process of dying. That doesn’t bode well for conservative ideologues like Speaker Paul Ryan. The choice they are facing is whether or not to join forces with the extremists and nativists, or begin a dialogue with Democrats. It is through that lens that I’ll be watching the coming battles over the federal budget and the debt ceiling.