The Republican presidential primary was settled two months ago, but party leaders still maintain Donald Trump is a temporary phenomenon who will be extinguished by Hillary Clinton.
The pols sustain their wait-for-2020 mindset: Clinton has a consistent 5 point lead in the Real Clear Politics average, and is up in a few surveys by double digits. They can’t wait for this race to be over so they can get on with life.
There are two schools of thought behind this outlook. One, held by institutional leaders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, is that GOP voters momentarily lost their minds and order will be restored shortly after Trump gets his deserved drubbing. The second, held by future once-again presidential aspirants like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, is that the voters really just want a conservative candidate and that Trump’s excess of conservative rivals sabotaged one other to let him steal the nomination from them.
Both of these theories are wrong because they miss a realignment that’s taken place among Republicans. It’s not realignment the way we normally think of it, about demographics. It’s a realignment of candidate appraisal. It springs from six years of electing conservative resistance to President Obama that proved feckless. GOP voters now value courage over ideology as the leading trait of political character. Who embodies political courage? Donald Trump.
Bill James, best known for his writing on baseball, had this to say in an essay about Trump (who he otherwise scorns) during the Republican primary: “The basis of Donald Trump’s campaign is not ‘conservatism’; it is the principle that you have to stand up for yourself… I don’t believe that anyone has ever run a Presidential campaign before based on this principle, and I think that what Donald Trump has done is to demonstrate exactly how powerful this is as an organizing principle for a political campaign.”
The examples are large and small: the wall with Mexico, the Muslim ban, the stare-downs with protestors, the no limit (until recently by his staff) on media interviews. Of course, this will occasionally steer Trump into trouble, like his attack on the Mexican-American judge presiding over the civil suit he’s named in. What Republican leaders ignore is that on balance his propensity to speak without a filter is a winning quality.
It’s also a quality with broad-based appeal. It explains how Trump in the Republican contests was able to win both conservative and moderate voting blocs, and communities ranging from the poorest towns cleaned out of manufacturing jobs to the toniest suburbs. He won every county in the “Acela primary” states and in Alabama.
Courage is not only prized as a stand-alone virtue by voters, but is seen today as a requirement for political accomplishment. Right-of-center voters were told for years that they’d get a conservative agenda to go toe-to-toe with Obama-era liberalism. It never happened. It’s not that the candidates they elected ditched their conservative principles as soon as they got to Washington, a refrain among activists and on talk radio. Two-thirds of the 247 House Republicans have career voting record scores of 80 (out of 100) or better from the American Conservative Union, and one-third of them score 90 or better. In the Senate, 43 out of the 54 Republicans score 80 or better, with 20 of them in the 90s.
The Republicans elected to Congress in waves in 2010 and 2014 voted the way they said they would. But they didn’t go beyond that minimal mandate. In the House, they didn’t pass a tax reform plan or Obamacare replacement plan or Kate’s Law. They balked at devising and promoting a wholesale economic agenda that a presidential candidate could run on. Too risky, better to let Obama’s record collapse on it’s own, was the thinking. Yet his record has been buoyant enough to be embraced by Hillary Clinton, who is running for Obama’s third term.
It says something that the most admired Republican campaign inside the Beltway is Mitch McConnell’s 2014 reelection. If there was ever a large-scale campaign whose contents were so quickly forgotten, it was that one. But that’s the point: Republicans elites believe elections are about technique (and money), not persuasion. Persuasion involves risk-taking. It involves going anywhere and everywhere with a colorful argument. It requires the courage to put your beliefs to the test.
It also says something that Mitch McConnell’s advice to Trump recently – as related by Trump himself – was to stick to scripted speeches at campaign rallies. When Trump objected that such a routine would be boring, the Senate Majority Leader replied, “I like boring.”
Why does boring appeal to the likes of McConnell, Paul Ryan and their peer group of GOP donors? Boring is controllable and a preventive against controversy. Boring does not get you called a racist or a moron or make some hedge fund manager/art collector in New York pick up the phone and complain. It may even win you some respect from liberals. But boring doesn’t change the political system, either. Even an energetic candidate like Ted Cruz ran into this limit – working off a script eventually tunes people out.
Because they see Trump as a fluke who’s now losing, party leaders like McConnell and Ryan are doubling down on these instincts to set themselves up to take back the GOP once Trump exits the stage. But even if Trump does lose, it’s not crazy to speculate that he has turned the political landscape into a killing field for conventional incumbents. Most people believe Trump’s criticism of politicians – they are all talk and no action, and are either corrupt or stupid – to be literally true. That includes the politicians they agree with.
It used to be that the models for throwing out established candidates were localized, such as David Brat’s upset of Eric Cantor in 2014. Now, thanks to Trump there’s a national model for doing so, including against candidates with perfect ideological credentials. That ought to terrify Republicans who came to Washington and voted the right way but did not have the courage to do anything else.