The GOP has two fevers that need to break

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— Some Tr ump- ob­sessed, hys­ter­i­cal nitwits have over­stated the case that the Repub­li­can Party may be on the verge of self-an­ni­hi­la­tion. “If Trump were the nom­i­nee,” said one, “the GOP would cease to be.”

That quote would be mine. The mood of the moment (not to men­tion the rhythm of the sen­tence) was ir­re­sistible. But the Repub­li­can Party would prob­a­bly not dis­in­te­grate if ei­ther Don­ald Trump or Ted Cruz were its nom­i­nee. The re­al­ity is both less dra­matic and (for those who wish the GOP well) more tragic.

On the whole, the Obama era has been the best time to be a Repub­li­can since Herbert Hoover left of­fice. The 2014 elec­tion yielded the high­est num­ber of GOP House mem­bers since 1928, and the sec­ond high­est num­ber of GOP sen­a­tors. There are cur­rently 31 Repub­li­can gov­er­nors. The GOP con­trols 70 per­cent of state leg­is­la­tures and en­joys sin­gleparty rule in 25 states.

Real Clear Politics elec­tion an­a­lysts Sean Trende and David Byler have put to­gether an in­dex of party strength, based on per­for­mance at federal, state and lo­cal lev­els. By their mea­sure, Repub­li­cans are do­ing their best over­all since 1928. “The Repub­li­can Party,” they con­clude, “is stronger than it has been in most of our read­ers’ life­times.”

The over­whelm­ing vol­ume of pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cov­er­age cre­ates an il­lu­sion that only pres­i­den­tial elec­tions mat­ter. But Demo­cratic de­cline at the state and lo­cal lev­els has ra­di­at­ing ef­fects — in­flu­enc­ing the shape of re­dis­trict­ing, emp­ty­ing the bench of fu­ture elec­toral tal­ent, and help­ing un­der­mine the im­ple­men­ta­tion of Demo­cratic ini­tia­tives such as Oba­macare.

Con­sider: If Repub­li­cans had fielded a strong pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee this year, who man­aged to win a winnable elec­tion, the party’s suc­cess would have been more com­pre­hen­sive than any since 1980. The tragedy is not that Repub­li­cans are on the verge of self-de­struc­tion; it is that they were on the verge of vic­tory, and threw it away.

This sin­gu­lar fail­ure is not a small thing for the GOP. The pa­tient is brim­ming with health and vigor in ev­ery way, ex­cept for the miss­ing head. Ei­ther of this year’s likely Repub­li­can fail­ures would com­pli­cate the job of can­di­dates down the ticket and help alien­ate de­mo­graphic groups that are es­sen­tial to fu­ture na­tional vic­to­ries.

At the pres­i­den­tial level, the GOP has two ar­gu­ments in des­per­ate need of de­feat — two ide­o­log­i­cal fevers that need to break. The first

WASH­ING­TON

is the tea party claim that ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity is the key to pres­i­den­tial suc­cess. Repub­li­cans, in this view, have lost re­cent pres­i­den­tial elec­tions be­cause their quis­ling can­di­dates, John McCain and Mitt Rom­ney, could not turn out 4 mil­lion “miss­ing” con­ser­va­tive vot­ers.

That num­ber, it ac­tu­ally turns out, is a myth, rooted in the slow re­port­ing of vote to­tals af­ter the 2012 elec­tion. “There’s no magic for­mula,” says Dan McLaugh­lin of RedS­tate, “no cav­alry of mil­lions of con­ser­va­tives wait­ing just over the hill to save the day.” A Custer-like loss by Cruz — who has shown lit­tle abil­ity to ex­pand be­yond his nar­row ide­o­log­i­cal ap­peal — would demon­strate this point.

The sec­ond fever is less com­mon in the U.S. than in Europe, but it is a par­tic­u­larly vicious strain. This is the claim by right-wing pop­ulists that Repub­li­cans need to com­pletely re­ori­ent their ide­ol­ogy in fa­vor of na­tivism, pro­tec­tion­ism and iso­la­tion­ism in or­der to ap­peal to work­ing-class whites. This was the mes­sage of Pat Buchanan’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns start­ing in the 1990s. With Trump, it is back in full force.

The prob­lem? Aside from the fact that pro­tec­tion­ism is self-de­struc­tive eco­nomic pol­icy, and iso­la­tion­ism is dis­as­trous for­eign pol­icy, an at­tempt to pump up the white vote with na­tivist rhetoric man­ages to alien­ate just about every­one else. Trump has se­cured his stag­nant plu­ral­ity in GOP pri­maries by earn­ing record-level dis­ap­proval from the rest of Amer­ica. If Trump were the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee, win­ning states such as Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia and Michi­gan would re­quire an in­crease in the white work­ing-class vote so vast that the math is es­sen­tially im­pos­si­ble.

This is now the sub­ject of many con­ver­sa­tions among Repub­li­cans: Is it bet­ter to lose with Cruz or to lose with Trump? Both the ar­gu­ments for tea party pu­rity and for “white lives mat­ter” na­tivism are in need of dis­cred­it­ing de­feat. Un­for­tu­nately, they seem to be the two avail­able choices.

Even­tu­ally, Repub­li­cans will re­quire another op­tion: A re­form-ori­ented con­ser­vatism that is re­spon­sive to work­ing-class prob­lems while ac­com­mo­dat­ing de­mo­graphic re­al­i­ties. This is what makes Paul Ryan so at­trac­tive as the Hail Mary pass of an open con­ven­tion. But, more re­al­is­ti­cally, it will be the work of a head­less Repub­li­can Party, re­con­sti­tut­ing it­self in a new Clin­ton era.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post.com.

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