BAN­NON’S WRECK­ING BALL

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion -

Steve Ban­non’s plot to re­make the Repub­li­can Party is bold, am­bi­tious and doomed to fail. The prob­lem is that he’s cho­sen the wrong cul­prit for the GOP’s woes.

Over the coming months, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s erst­while chief strate­gist in­tends to back pri­mary chal­lengers to those in­cum­bent GOP sen­a­tors whom he finds to be in­suf­fi­ciently zeal­ous in their com­mit­ment to the Trump agenda. Ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg Pol­i­tics, Ban­non has two main de­mands of can­di­dates seek­ing his sup­port: They must com­mit to boot­ing Mitch McCon­nell out of his role as Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader, and they must sup­port killing the fil­i­buster, which has evolved into a de facto re­quire­ment that the party in power main­tain a su­per­ma­jor­ity to en­act its leg­isla­tive agenda.

One ar­gu­ment against Ban­non’s scheme is that even if it works, it won’t work. Imag­ine he suc­ceeds in oust­ing a Repub­li­can in­cum­bent in a swing state. Say it’s Dean Heller of Ne­vada, a man who’s clearly no fan of Trump and who has been keen to present him­self as scrupu­lously mod­er­ate to vot­ers in his pur­ple state. If Heller loses, chances are his suc­ces­sor will be a Demo­crat, not a Ban­non­ite. Be­cause the 2018 Se­nate map has such a strong Repub­li­can tilt, this red-to-blue swing might not be enough to jeop­ar­dize the GOP ma­jor­ity. Still, the most likely take­away here would not be that Repub­li­cans should be ter­ri­fied of Ban­non’s new elec­toral ma­chine, but rather that the man from Bre­it­bart cost Repub­li­cans a winnable seat.

The big­ger pic­ture is­sue for Ban­non is that if he wants to change the GOP, he needs to of­fer more than just empty slo­ga­neer­ing.

If there’s one thing we know about Ban­non, it’s that he’s a self-de­scribed pop­ulist who wants to move the GOP in a more pop­ulist di­rec­tion. But as so­ci­ol­o­gist Bart Bonikowski has ob­served, “pop­ulism” is best un­der­stood as a rhetor­i­cal style com­monly adopted by po­lit­i­cal out­siders. There’s no es­sen­tial ide­o­log­i­cal core there, which is why you’ll find both demo­cratic so­cial­ists and cor­po­rate lib­er­tar­i­ans who talk up the idea of a con­flict be­tween the peo­ple and the pow­er­ful. There are a num­ber of smart peo­ple, such as Jan-Werner Müller, who in­sist there is a uni­fy­ing thread to pop­ulism — Müller would say it’s anti-plu­ral­ism — and they might be right. But for our pur­poses, it’s rea­son­able to say that the fact some­one iden­ti­fies as a pop­ulist tells you al­most noth­ing about what she ac­tu­ally be­lieves on pol­icy mat­ters. All it tells you, truth­fully, is that she prob­a­bly hasn’t been on the po­lit­i­cal scene for very long, as it strains credulity for a veteran politi­cian to claim to be an out­sider who can shake up the sys­tem. Ask Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Ban­non is wrong to think the prob­lem with to­day’s GOP sen­a­tors is that they’ve been un­will­ing to climb aboard the Trump train. Rather, it’s that there’s no train to climb aboard. If the pres­i­dent had a well-de­fined, rea­son­ably pop­u­lar agenda, it’s pos­si­ble a hand­ful of Repub­li­can sen­a­tors would keep de­fy­ing him out of prin­ci­ple. But, re­ally — does any­one be­lieve that Repub­li­can sen­a­tors are an es­pe­cially prin­ci­pled bunch? If Trump’s job ap­proval rat­ings were in the high 40s rather than the high 30s right now, that would mean he’d suc­cess­fully in­cor­po­rated a new group of vot­ers into the GOP. Repub­li­can in­cum­bents would have lit­tle choice but to de­fer to him.

Ban­non does, how­ever, have an achieve­ment he can build on. Trump man­aged to win the votes of mil­lions of work­ing-class vot­ers who were oth­er­wise skep­ti­cal of the GOP. If the Repub­li­can Party could some­how re­tain these vot­ers, the chang­ing Repub­li­can base would com­pel GOP politi­cians to em­brace a more work­ing class-friendly agenda. Why? Be­cause it’s the job of politi­cians to keep their elec­toral coali­tion in­tact and happy.

David Karol, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, has found that par­ties change their ide­o­log­i­cal com­plex­ion not just through turnover, i.e., the elec­tion of new can­di­dates un­der the party’s ban­ner, but also through con­ver­sion, i.e., in­cum­bent politi­cians chang­ing their stances to match the evo­lu­tion of their party’s coali­tion. For ex­am­ple, there are tons of Democrats who were once wary of back­ing same-sex mar­riage or sin­gle-payer health care (be­cause they were afraid of alien­at­ing mod­er­ates), and who are now pas­sion­ately com­mit­ted to both (be­cause the Demo­cratic base has moved to the left).

We’re see­ing a sim­i­lar process at work among Repub­li­cans. The fail­ure of the Oba­macare re­place­ment ef­fort is ar­guably a sign that at least some Repub­li­cans are adapt­ing to the more work­ing-class char­ac­ter of their base, whether they’re will­ing to ac­knowl­edge it or not. Con­fronted with the fact that many of their vot­ers de­pend on Med­i­caid, Repub­li­cans who’d long de­fined them­selves by their com­mit­ment to small-gov­ern­ment ideals are re­defin­ing them­selves as de­fend­ers of (part of ) the safety net.

If Ban­non’s goal is to re­make the Repub­li­can Party, he ought to help Repub­li­cans con­sol­i­date their sup­port among work­ing-class vot­ers, and to grow that sup­port as much as pos­si­ble. But the ob­sta­cle there isn’t Mitch McCon­nell, and it’s not the in­cum­bent GOP sen­a­tors Ban­non is tar­get­ing. It is Don­ald Trump, whose feck­less­ness and in­com­pe­tence put him at risk of los­ing the work­ing-class vot­ers in the in­dus­trial Mid­west who put him in the White House.

If Ban­non wants to find a ripe tar­get, he should look no fur­ther than the pres­i­dent he once served.

© 2017 Slate

As­so­ci­ated Press

If for­mer White House strate­gist Steve Ban­non, shown at a cam­paign rally in Alabama, wants to change the GOP, he needs to of­fer more than just empty slo­ga­neer­ing.

REIHAN SALAM

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