After Trump, the GOP Can Still Be Saved From Itself
How shall we describe the prevailing American temperament as the presidential election of 2020 approaches?
“In a funk” might work. Or “totally perplexed.” Or perhaps “highly pissed.” “Verging on despair”? Stephen Sondheim once wrote a bluesy number that wondered “God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-ya-later.” This past week’s dismal and discouraging presidential debate—or whatever you want to call it—has certainly left me with a case of the blues.
I’m guessing that I am not the only one. The God that most Americans assume must surely have a soft spot for the United States has a strange way of showing that love. Could it be that He has left the building?
Among pundits it has become commonplace to describe this year’s election as the most important in recent memory, if not all of U.S. history. Count me among the unpersuaded.
That Americans need an important election is doubtless the case. That is, we need an election that will bring clarity to the multiplying challenges crowding the nation’s agenda. Even an abbreviated list of those challenges would surely include war, debt, race, immigration, health, inequality, privacy, free speech, the environment, and a rapidly changing global order that is not tilting our way.
Conservatives and progressives will differ when it comes to prioritizing responses to these various challenges. But without priorities of some sort, problems simply fester.
In this particular election, however, the spotlight rarely strays from Donald Trump’s remarkable persona. Both acolytes and critics tacitly agree that we are presently living in an eponymous “Age of Trump” over which our current president presides like some vulgar and volatile Wizard of Oz. So to an unfortunately great extent, the upcoming contest centers on one overarching question to the virtual exclusion of just about everything else: will the Age of Trump end on January 20, 2021 or will it continue for four (or more!) years?
Allow me to register my personal dissent. Ours is not an Age of Trump. It’s an Age of Chickens Coming Home to Roost. Honest observers can disagree on exactly when America took a wrong turn. Many conservatives of my (advanced) age still hold a grudge against the Sixties. In his splendid book The Age of Entitlement, Christopher Caldwell makes a strong case that the decade associated with sex, drugs, rock, and Vietnam left a poisonous legacy that still haunts the nation.
I myself tend to think we blew it by grotesquely misinterpreting our “victory” in the Cold War, an argument that I make in my book The Age of Illusions. But there is a strong case to be made that the heedless and hysterical response to 9/11, leading in short order to a mindless Global War on Terrorism, deserves pride of place. Good news since the United States embarked upon the GWOT has been notably scarce.
Of course, many on the Left greeted the election of Barack Obama as very good news indeed. With the passage of time, however, even Obama’s biggest fans are hard-pressed to deny the fact that his presidency largely proved a disappointment. Obama looks good only in comparison to his predecessor and his successor.
So regardless of where you want to start the story, the United States of America today is not in a good place. And blaming Trump for the fix we’re in qualifies as little more than a dodge.
Let me come clean: on Election Day, I will hold my nose and vote for Biden. I hope he wins. I hope even more fervently that he is able to take office on January 20 without our country coming apart at the seams. Yet the likelihood that Biden will succeed in actually repairing our badly damaged social fabric is close to zero.
Doubtless, our Joe—a fellow Catholic!—is a decent enough fellow personally. But even among progressives he inspires little enthusiasm. He is a Democratic version of Warren Harding, the agreeable hack who in 1920 won his party’s nomination not because he was highly regarded but because he seemed unlikely to rock the boat. Other more interesting candidates were available, but they were deemed too risky. Harding was a safe pick. So too is Biden.
Safe in this context means that candidate Biden will take his cues from liberal centrists who are veterans of past Democratic administrations. A Biden administration will deliver a warmed over version of what we’ve experienced during the years when Bill Clinton and then Barack Obama were in the White House, with George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency sandwiched in between. These were the administrations whose various bumbles and fumbles created the conditions that enabled Donald Trump to make his successful run for the presidency in 2016.
Unless Biden can defeat the pandemic and restore some semblance of shared prosperity within the first year of his presidency, he’s probably toast. All Americans, regardless of political persuasion, should root for his success in that regard. Liberals will then enjoy a shot at pushing a Left agenda.
Meanwhile, Republicans can make good use of that period to detoxify, purging themselves of the poisons ingested when they drank deeply of the polluted waters of Trumpism.
Whether this will suffice remains to be seen. Having thoroughly prostituted itself, the Party of Lincoln may prove to be irredeemable. Few genuine conservatives will mourn its passing.
But if the GOP seeks to regain even a modicum of respectability, its leaders should identify a set of modest propositions that may at least begin undo the damage inflicted on the American people by recent Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
What might those modest propositions include? Here are four commonplace suggestions:
First, clip the wings of the commander-in-chief. Promote legislation that prohibits U.S. military action abroad without prior congressional assent. No more presidential wars of choice. No more regime change.
Second, curb runaway military spending. Refuse to indulge the bizarre proposition that equates national security with the amount of money shoveled annually to the Pentagon.
Third, bring the military-industrial complex to heel. Put a lock on the revolving door between arms manufacturers and the national security establishment. Support radical campaign finance reform to prohibit defense contractors from buying members of Congress as they have been regularly doing ever since Ike called attention to the practice.
Fourth, demand fiscal discipline. This was once a bedrock Republican principle. Restore it. Saddling future generations with massive debt is an outrage and a sin. Say so loudly and repeatedly. Mean it this time.
None of these alone will restore the lost honor of the Republican Party. Yet together they just might make a start at persuading Americans to forgive the party for having sold its soul for a mess of pottage.
Do that and the election of 2024 might turn out to be the genuinely important one.
Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, is TAC’s writer-at-large.