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What Happens to the Conservative Realignment if Trump is Defeated?

How a President Sanders could really roil the Right.
Bernie Sanders

Has there ever been a stranger election year budget than the one President Donald Trump released as Democrats started heading to the polls?

Clocking in at $4.8 trillion, it is unlikely to win him many plaudits from the small but vocal contingent of consistent fiscal conservatives who, rather than building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, would prefer to construct a dam to contain the rising tide of red ink. It contains no structural reforms to the spending programs on which retiring baby boomers will rely for income and healthcare in their golden years. Yet at the same time, liberal activists can point to $850 billion in Medicare cuts here and $920 billion in Medicaid cuts there.

The budget has no chance of being adopted, of course. Democrats control the House of Representatives, where all spending and revenue bills must originate (that part of the Constitution is still operative), so the White House’s spending blueprint for the next fiscal year is dead on arrival. But the president’s opponents may find it useful in the 2020 campaign, and it is certainly as good an illustration of any of the paradox of Trump’s approach to budgetary issues.

Trump ran to the left, if that is the correct term, of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio on fiscal policy in 2016. He said cuts to Social Security and Medicare were off-limits. He wanted the Republican alternative to Obamacare to be better—more “terrific,” to put it exactly—than the status quo, instead of more market-friendly. He favored tariffs, getting tough on the trade practices of adversaries and allies alike, and actively encouraging businesses to keep jobs in America. Trump broke with free-market orthodoxy to a greater degree than any GOP standard-bearer than Richard “We’re all Keynesians now” Nixon and was rewarded with the electoral votes of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Few Republicans are as serious about spending once in office as they are when campaigning, especially against the profligacy of Democratic incumbents. It’s also been quite some time since Republicans have balanced the budget unaided by a Democrat in the White House (or, for that matter, an internet-fueled economic boom). Nevertheless, Trump has been far more conventional on fiscal policy than one might have expected based on his election-year rhetoric: tariffs, yes, and bailouts to farmers who feel squeezed by his trade battles, but also tax cuts, deregulation, and proposed cuts to non-defense discretionary spending.

In 2017, when all of Washington was still in awe of Trump’s upset victory and even the likes of James Mattis and Mitt Romney were lining up to come work for his new administration, the president famously passed on pursuing any distinctly populist agenda items with Congress. He could have collaborated with Democrats on an infrastructure plan; instead “Infrastructure Week” has come to be seen as a joke. He could have sought to build the wall and have Paul Ryan, if not Mexico, pay for it. Immigration, trade, jobs—these were all opportunities to scramble partisan politics, possibly for a generation.

What followed instead was a tax cut, including a reduction to the corporate rate, and a failed bid to repeal Obamacare. It made a certain superficial political sense at the time. Trump had poor relations with Ryan, then the speaker of the House, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, during the campaign. Now that they were his governing partners, focusing on areas where they all agreed—taxes, Obamacare, judges—seemed like a promising path to rapid legislative success. There is also a policy case to be made for this mix: Republican presidents had married higher tariffs on foreign goods with lower taxes on income, savings, and investment before. But it now looks like a missed opportunity, especially if Trump was supposed to represent a break with the old Reaganite consensus. 

Still, Trump’s election has coincided with a rethinking of that consensus on the Right, even if it hasn’t brought one to fruition in Washington. (There are some exceptions: the Trump budget seeks to boost antitrust enforcement by over 70 percent; many of the immigration regulatory changes are designed to reduce rather than increase immigrant inflows.) Conservatives are debating the use of government power to combat what they see as censorship on social media platforms, curb access to pornography, shore up middle American jobs, make it easier for families to have children, and counteract Chinese economic practices in ways that would have been unthinkable at the peak of Ryan’s influence on the GOP. There is a prospect for conservative realignment on immigration, trade, and economic policy that even ambitious politicians traditionally in the Jack Kemp mold—think Marco Rubio—have begun to seriously entertain.

The question then becomes: what happens to all that if a progressive concerned about the same economic anxieties as the populist Right wins the Democratic nomination—or, taking it one step further, the White House? To the extent that some of this intellectual ferment is a reaction to Trump and the chaos he has created, his defeat has the potential to lead Republicans back to the pre-Trump era. Aside from a Josh Hawley here and a Matt Gaetz there, the GOP talent pool remains well disposed to a trip in the Wayback Machine to 2014 or earlier. Do Fox News host Tucker Carlson, populist journalist Saagar Enjeti, and the editors of the reinvigorated First Things magazine become men without a country—or at least a political party—under this scenario?

Republicans have also tended to react to Democrats wielding power by becoming more libertarian. That was the case in the midterm elections of 1994, 2010, and 2014, all good years for GOP candidates. The Tea Party Congress even achieved some semblance of success by imposing the sequestration regime on an unwilling Obama administration. The Gingrich Congress passed welfare reform. 

It’s possible there will be a boy-who-cried-socialist effect and it will be difficult to resume a resolute anti-deficit stance after running trillion-dollar shortfalls in a time of relative economic growth. It’s nevertheless the case that Democrats are running on far more ambitious spending plans than in recent years and one of their leading candidates—arguably the leading candidate—actually embraces the socialist label. If Republicans are still trying to govern in response to the economic conditions that prevailed in 1981, such as 70 percent marginal income tax rates, maybe that becomes less irrelevant if Democrats restore their old policies and perhaps even those conditions. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, one popular analogy is to compare Trump to Jimmy Carter and Bernie Sanders to Reagan. Sanders is supposed to be too old and too ideological to be president. So was Reagan, and he won 44 states. Trump, like Carter, recognized his party needed to change but once in office had to work with a party leadership that was largely uninterested in policy innovation. Ross Douthat argued in The New York Times that Trump and Carter were “both outsiders who seized control of a divided, exhausted, yet still powerful political party, both men who tried to push their coalitions into a new ideological formation, both presidents who commanded legislative majorities but accomplished next to nothing with them.”

The key difference is that Trump is not presiding over stagflation, and the electorate might not be willing to gamble its 401ks and low unemployment rates on radical economic change. To the extent that there is any malaise in the country, it was one inspired by exhaustion with Trump himself—the tweets, the petty fights, the purported inability of families to get along at their Thanksgiving dinners when faced with the mere prospect of discussing the current occupant of the Oval Office. 

The Democratic establishment itself fears this outcome more than forcing Trump into the predictable terrain of a conventional Left-Right campaign. Consequently, other alternatives exist. One that may be more congenial to the populist Right is the nomination of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg is already backing away from his law-and-order past, essential to his mayoral victories but a liability in Democratic primaries. He has not disavowed his dalliances with the neoconservatives on foreign policy, a bit of reality that has yet to mug him. Bloomberg remains very much a neoliberal technocrat, an apologist for globalization and China, a Davos Democrat.

A self-funding billionaire like Bloomberg could lead Republicans to reevaluate their position on campaign finance reform. He already seems to be having that kind of influence on Democrats. “The Democratic Party faithful, given to shrieking like caged baboons when sighting such large sums of money in politics, have been oddly placid about Bloomberg’s investments,” observed Politico’s Jack Shafer.

Trump would almost certainly repeat the playbook he used successfully against Hillary Clinton and planned to deploy against Joe Biden in a general election match-up with Bloomberg. If Bloomberg won the election anyway, Republicans might find more to oppose him on than just garden variety post-Great Society liberalism, though his administration would certainly deliver plenty of that. That could include opposing endless wars, reining in the excesses of globalization, and trying to reform the tax code in a more pro-child, family-friendly direction.

By contrast, a nominee like Sanders could take many of those issues away from Trump and the Republicans. Don’t like free trade deals? Neither does Bernie. Worried about the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt? So is Bernie. Sanders voted against the Iraq war and has advocates of foreign policy restraint prominently placed in his campaign braintrust. There is no comparable pro-peace wing of the Trump national security team, which is a big part of the reason his campaign promises on shrinking America’s military footprint in the Middle East remain so conspicuously unfulfilled. Nor has Trump done much to improve the likelihood that conservative realists will qualify for senior national security positions in future Republican administrations. 

It’s entirely possible that Sanders’s economic nostrums will prove too radical for the American public. Scrapping most private health insurance and restructuring the medical care system in ways that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton never dared has the potential to impose costs on ordinary, non-wealthy Americans that go far beyond arguing about comparatively small changes to the top marginal income tax rate.

It’s also plausible that even if voters, especially in the key swing states that will decide the Electoral College majority, aren’t repulsed by Sanders’s economics, he will so drench them in cultural liberalism and performative wokeness as to render himself unelectable anyway. Still, Sanders will be advocating for trillions of dollars he will say will improve people’s lives while Republicans will likely be in the position of saying no, only on a more massive scale than ever before. There are political risks inherent in that dynamic as well.

All this is academic if Trump wins reelection. While that outcome will certainly create its own challenges, it gives people who want to see a far more thorough rewriting of the Republican playbook than Trump has so far offered an incentive to root for a second term. Maybe Trump won’t end the wars, reform immigration, or turn the GOP into a workers party. But if he is replaced by a progressive Democrat, will anyone?