How The Republicans Blew It
Just getting around to Nick Confessore’s piece in yesterday’s NYT, explaining how the GOP elites lost touch with their base. Some excerpts:
Some conservative intellectuals warned that the party was headed for trouble. Republicans had become too identified with big business and the wealthy — their donor class. They urged Republican lawmakers to embrace policies that could have a more direct impact on pay and economic prospects for these voters: wage subsidies, relocation aid to the long-term unemployed, even targeted infrastructure spending. But much of the party’s agenda remained frozen.
“They figured, ‘These are conservative voters, anti-Obama voters. We’ll give them the same policies we’ve always given them,’” said James Pethokoukis, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “High-earner tax cuts, which people are skeptical of; business tax cuts, even though these businesses seem to be doing great. It didn’t resonate with the problems in their lives.”
While jobs in places like Buffalo were vanishing, Washington was coming to resemble a gilded city of lobbyists, contractors and lawmakers. In 2014, the median wealth of members of Congress reached $1 million, about 18 times that of the typical American household, according to disclosures tabulated by the Center for Responsive Politics. During the same year, real hourly wages remained flat or fell for nearly all American workers.
Ed McMullen, a public relations executive who worked for the conservative Heritage Foundation in the 1980s, watched the gulf widen between the Washington establishment and the working people in his home state, South Carolina.
“Thirty years later, the same people are sitting in Washington that I worked with, making a million a year, going to fancy dinner parties, and they’ve done nothing to move the ball,” said Mr. McMullen, who has joined the Trump campaign. “Therein lies the great chasm between the think tanks, the ideologues and the real world.”
Few issues were now as dangerous to them as trade, Mr. Luntz told the lawmakers, especially a trade pact sought by a president their voters hated. Many Americans did not believe that the economic benefits of trade deals trickled down to their neighborhoods. They did not care if free trade provided them with cheaper socks and cellphones. Most believed free trade benefited other countries, not their own.
“I told them to stop calling it free trade, and start calling it American trade,” Mr. Luntz said in an interview. “American businesses, American services — American, American, American!”
With God as my witness, if Donald J. Trump does nothing else but damage the career of Frank Luntz and his damned stupid let’s-figure-out-a-new-way-to-lie-to-the-rubes, he will have served his country well.
Read the whole thing. John Podhoretz makes a good case that Confessore is mistaken, explaining why nobody saw Trump coming, and that Trump himself made trade a key political issue. Ross Douthat, often a critic of the GOP elites, defends them, sort of, in a series of 15 tweets, the key one of which is this:
11/ The best defense of the GOP elite is simply that the party’s voters want the self-contradictory + impossible. Which some of them do.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) March 28, 2016
Look, Confessore’s narrative plays to my own biases, and I love Burl Finkelstein, the small business manager who is in the piece’s lede. But did anyone anticipate that an elderly socialist from Vermont would be making Hillary work for the Democratic nomination? This has been a very strange year.
Could it be that the GOP coalition has been unstable for a while, and Trump is the first candidate who gave downscale voters a choice? That the edifice had rotted from within, and along came Trump to push it over? The “open letter” from the woman who once headed communications for Trump’s PAC, saying that Trump didn’t think he was going to get this far and never wanted to be president — that letter, if it’s true, indicates that not even Trump knew how weak the GOP was.
American presidential elections usually amount to a series of overcorrections: Clinton begat Bush, who produced Obama, whose lax border policies fueled the rise of Trump. In the case of Trump, though, the GOP shares the blame, and not just because his fellow Republicans misdirected their ad buys or waited so long to criticize him. Trump is in part a reaction to the intellectual corruption of the Republican Party. That ought to be obvious to his critics, yet somehow it isn’t.
Consider the conservative nonprofit establishment, which seems to employ most right-of-center adults in Washington. Over the past 40 years, how much donated money have all those think tanks and foundations consumed? Billions, certainly. (Someone better at math and less prone to melancholy should probably figure out the precise number.) Has America become more conservative over that same period? Come on. Most of that cash went to self-perpetuation: Salaries, bonuses, retirement funds, medical, dental, lunches, car services, leases on high-end office space, retreats in Mexico, more fundraising. Unless you were the direct beneficiary of any of that, you’d have to consider it wasted.
Pretty embarrassing. And yet they’re not embarrassed. Many of those same overpaid, underperforming tax-exempt sinecure-holders are now demanding that Trump be stopped. Why? Because, as his critics have noted in a rising chorus of hysteria, Trump represents “an existential threat to conservatism.”
Let that sink in. Conservative voters are being scolded for supporting a candidate they consider conservative because it would be bad for conservatism? And by the way, the people doing the scolding? They’re the ones who’ve been advocating for open borders, and nation-building in countries whose populations hate us, and trade deals that eliminated jobs while enriching their donors, all while implicitly mocking the base for its worries about abortion and gay marriage and the pace of demographic change. Now they’re telling their voters to shut up and obey, and if they don’t, they’re liberal.
It turns out the GOP wasn’t simply out of touch with its voters; the party had no idea who its voters were or what they believed. For decades, party leaders and intellectuals imagined that most Republicans were broadly libertarian on economics and basically neoconservative on foreign policy. That may sound absurd now, after Trump has attacked nearly the entire Republican catechism (he savaged the Iraq War and hedge fund managers in the same debate) and been greatly rewarded for it, but that was the assumption the GOP brain trust operated under. They had no way of knowing otherwise. The only Republicans they talked to read the Wall Street Journal too.
If you missed it the first time, read the whole thing. And if you read the whole thing back then, read it again.