Members of the Republican governing class are like cowering freshmen at halftime of a high school football game. Some are part of the Surrender Caucus, sitting sullenly on their stools resigned to the likelihood that their team is going to get crushed. Some are thinking of jumping ship to the Trump campaign with an alacrity that rats would admire and applaud.
Rarely has a party so passively accepted its own self-destruction. Sure, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are now riding high in some meaningless head-to-head polls against Hillary Clinton, but the odds are the nomination of either would lead to a party-decimating general election.
The tea party, Ted Cruz’s natural vehicle, has 17 percent popular support, according to Gallup. The idea that most women, independents or mainstream, order-craving suburbanites would back a guy who declares his admiration for Vladimir Putin is a mirage. The idea that the GOP can march into the 21st century intentionally alienating every person of color is borderline insane.
Worse is the prospect that one of them might somehow win. Very few presidents are so terrible that they genuinely endanger their own nation, but Trump and Cruz would go there and beyond. Trump is a solipsistic branding genius whose “policies” have no contact with Planet Earth and who would be incapable of organizing a coalition, domestic or foreign.
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Cruz would be as universally off-putting as he has been in all his workplaces. He’s always been good at tearing things down but incompetent when it comes to putting things together.
So maybe it’s time for governing Republicans to actually do something. Yes, I’m talking to you state legislators, or local committeepersons, or members of Congress and all your networks of donors and supporters. If MoveOn can organize, if the tea party can organize, if Justin Bieber can build a gigantic social media movement, why are you incapable of any collective action at all?
What’s needed is a grass-roots movement that stands for governing conservatism, built both online and through rallies, and gets behind a single candidate sometime in mid- to late February. In politics, if A (Trump) and B (Cruz) savage each other then the benefits often go to Candidate C. But there has to be a C, not a C, D, E, F and G.
This new movement must come to grips with two realities. First, the electorate has changed. Less-educated voters are in the middle of a tidal wave of trauma. Labor force participation is dropping, wages are sliding, suicide rates are rising, heroin addiction is rising, faith in American institutions is dissolving.
Second, the Republican Party is not as antigovernment as its elites think it is. Its members no longer fit into the same old ideological categories. Trump grabbed his lead with an ideological grab bag of gestures, some of them quite on the left. He is more Huey Long than Calvin Coolidge.
Given the current strains on middle- and working-class families, many Republican voters want a government that will help the little guy; they just don’t want one that is incompetent, corrupt or infused with liberal social values.
In addition, younger voters and college-educated voters are more moderate than party leaders. According to one of the smartest conservative analysts, Henry Olsen, somewhere around 35 to 40 percent of the GOP electorate is only “somewhat conservative.”
What’s needed is a coalition that combines Huey Long, Charles Colson and Theodore Roosevelt: working-class populism, religious compassion and institutional reform.
Years ago, reform conservatives were proposing a Sam’s Club Republicanism, which would actually provide concrete policy ideas to help the working class, like wage subsidies, a higher earned-income tax credit, increased child tax credits, subsidies for people who wanted to move in search of work and exemption of the first $20,000 in earnings from the Medicaid payroll tax. This would be a conservatism that emphasized social mobility at the bottom, not cutting taxes at the top.
Maybe it’s time a center-right movement actually offered that agenda.
And maybe it’s time some Republicans took a stand on what is emerging as the central dispute of our time – not between left and right but between open and closed. As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams has found, the key trait that identifies Trump followers is authoritarianism. His central image is a wall. With their emphasis on anger and shutting people out, Trump and Cruz are more like European conservatives than American ones.
Governing conservatism has to offer people a secure financial base and a steady hand up so they can welcome global capitalism with hope and a sense of opportunity. That’s the true American tradition, emphasizing future dynamism not tribal walls. There’s a silent majority of hopeful, practical, programmatic Republicans. You know who you are.
Please don’t go quietly and pathetically into the night.