In 1992, at the age of 31, I was a Nevada delegate to the Republican National Convention in Houston. The nominee that year was President George H.W. Bush.
Those were heady days for American conservatism and the GOP. It had just won three straight presidential elections by comfortable margins, including Reagan’s historic 49-state landslide in 1984. But something was not quite right.
Bush had been challenged in the Republican primary by former Reagan-administration communications director Pat Buchanan, and running as a third-party candidate was Texas businessman Ross Perot, a man with an enormous ego who claimed he could save the world by the sheer force of his will and his “business sense” (sound familiar?). Bush’s Democratic general-election opponent was a young governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton. He was articulate, bright, and easy to like, and he had an uncanny ability to distance himself from the Democrats’ reputation as the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” (not to mention military and economic failure).
As commander-in-chief, Bush had cautiously and carefully helped shepherd Eastern Europe and NATO through delicate transitions after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and had without any significant loss of blood and treasure expelled Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait in the first gulf war. However, after over a decade of unparalleled prosperity, a small recession in the U.S economy in late 1991 and early 1992 resulted in a steep decline in the president’s approval ratings. Bush, an eminently decent man, was portrayed as a detached patrician pragmatist who, by breaking his promise to not raise taxes, was betraying the Reagan Revolution.
Clinton won the 1992 race with about 43 percent of the popular vote, while Bush and Perot divided the Reagan coalition that the Democrats had thought was nearly insurmountable. Thanks to two flamboyant, verbose populists and a savvy Clinton campaign, what Reagan had brought together, reckless enthusiasms had torn asunder. Governing on most issues to the right of the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), the centrist Clinton easily won reelection in 1996. (Credit, of course, must be given to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives that nudged Clinton to the right.)
As they say, the rest is history. Beginning with the 1996 election, the GOP ceased to be the national party it had become in the late 1970s. Although there were certainly cultural reasons for this shift, the party committed several unforced errors. California, for example, was lost for the foreseeable future after Republican Governor Pete Wilson pinned his 1994 reelection hopes to aggressively supporting Proposition 187, a ballot initiative to prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving any state benefits. (It did pass, but it was eventually struck down as unconstitutional by a federal court.) Jack Kemp and William J. Bennett, both Republicans, campaigned against 187, arguing that Wilson’s support—though improving his reelection chances by attracting some votes from the traditionally Democratic white working class—would permanently discourage California Latinos from supporting Republicans. (Wilson, who has apparently not learned from his mistake, is now supporting the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump.)
The Republican Party, once a beacon of economic liberty and opportunity, was allowing to flourish in its midst a kind of xenophobic protectionism. Rather than confidently offering Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to the world’s dispossessed masses, it panicked and ran behind the walls of the man in the high castle. So today, unsurprisingly, we have the spectacle of Newt Gingrich, a self-proclaimed Reaganite who cosponsored the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that the government should administer to Muslim immigrants a theological test to determine whether they should be admitted into the United States.
To be sure, the GOP won the White House in both the 2000 and 2004 elections, though it lost the popular vote in 2000 and won it only narrowly in 2004. One suspects that if not for the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and what seemed at the time to be the president’s successful military and intelligence campaigns against international terrorism, it is unlikely that George W. Bush would have won reelection. The deep fissures within the party, its unwillingness to learn from the successes of the Reagan Revolution, and its inability to articulate anything remotely resembling a coherent and attractive vision of American governance further alienated many Americans from the GOP.
What we have today is a party in total disarray. After losing the last two elections to an intelligent and attractive though deeply flawed Democrat, it has nominated for president what appears to many as a walking, talking stereotype of what conservatism’s enemies want you to believe it really stands for: crude, racist, sexist, unintelligent, xenophobic, ill-informed megalomania. For the vice presidency, the party’s nominee is a Midwestern governor who in 2015 folded under the pressure of the corporate interests that disapproved of a religious-liberty statute he had signed into law.
That statute, which the governor and legislature rescinded only weeks after its passage, sought to protect religious business owners from being coerced to participate in what they believe are the faux sacraments of the sexual revolution. And yet 80 percent of white Evangelicals—many of whom were uneasy for theological reasons about voting for the morally upright and accomplished Mormon Mitt Romney—say they will be voting Trump-Pence in 2016.
This ticket is all that stands in the way of the unpopular matriarch of the aristocracy’s favorite crime family as she attempts to become president of the United States. As if the GOP had for the past four years meticulously planned to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, it now provides us with yet another reason it has come to be known, even by its many friends and supporters, as the Stupid Party.
Francis J. Beckwith is the 2016-2017 visiting professor of conservative thought and policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, as well as professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University. His most recent book is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics and the Reasonableness of Faith.