I have no desire to downplay the disaster that the GOP has brought upon itself this cycle. Presented with a “change year” and given the gift of an opponent who is far weaker than she seemed, Republicans have chosen to commit electoral suicide. Had they played their cards right, they could have had it all: unified government, a chance to replace Justice Scalia, a golden opportunity for real reform. As it is, they are going to lose the White House for the third election in a row, and to exacerbate the demographic and reputational problems that keep the party’s chiefs up at night. This has not, let’s say, been a glorious eighteen months.
That said, I think we ought to be a touch careful before writing the party’s obituary. As damaging as Donald Trump has been — and may continue to be after the election — the GOP has proven pretty resilient, all told. Currently, the Republican party is having serious trouble winning the White House — trouble that started with the normal swing of the pendulum, and that, this year at least, has been continued by the party’s penchant for self-destruction. But is that endemic, as the doom and gloom merchants insist? Possibly not, no. Indeed, if the GOP had chosen somebody good this year — anyone other than Trump, really — the landscape would now look very different indeed. Probably, the GOP would be winning. And then what would the headlines read? “Republican comeback,” mostly likely. Maybe even “Unified government.” Put a Kasich or a Walker or a Rubio at the top of the ticket this year and, of the last four elections, the GOP would have won half — two out of four. Is that what is meant by extinction?
The rest of the American system isn’t proving too toxic for the party, either; before this election season, the GOP was in its strongest electoral position since 1929. If the polls are to be believed, it is likely to see a modest reduction in that position this year. But where, I wonder, is the catastrophe? Given the data we have, it seems likely that the GOP will retain the House, which will mean that, by the time of the 2018 mid-terms, it will have run that chamber for 20 of the last 22 years. Similarly, if the forecasts are accurate, the party is looking at a loss in the Senate of between three and six seats, which, even supposing the worst case scenario, is hardly disastrous (split the difference, and you get a four-seat loss, which would put the chamber at 50-50; not a sign of terminal decline). And in the states, where most laws are made? The GOP remains strong. Look at the maps in 2018, and presume a Hillary Clinton presidency. Can you see an imminent collapse? I can’t.
Perhaps most of important of all, it remains the case that the party’s recruiting and campaigning efforts have been stellar of late (Trump aside, natch). It is a supreme irony that, in the same year as the GOP nominated a Sharon Angle for President, it was able to offer up Senate candidates of the quality of Rubio, Heck, Toomey, Ayotte, Portman et. al, and to offer to put them alongside the Cottons, Scotts, and Gardners of the 2014 sweep. Currently, the GOP has senators in diverse states such as Florida, Texas, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, and Colorado. If the Republican Party is to be Trumpified into oblivion, it’s going to take a while.
As for the related notion that Trump is “emblematic” of the party — and that this will prove to be a long-term problem — I can’t say I’m convinced. Unless the GOP changes, it will indeed find itself in trouble. And it certainly can’t play the Trump game again — ever. But however hard the progressive left might insist otherwise, there isn’t much evidence that voters regard Trump as being the spirit animal of the Republican Right. On the contrary, as the Washington Post reported yesterday
The Post-ABC poll includes a question about whether people think Trump represents the “core values” of the Republican Party, and a strong majority of likely voters say he doesn’t — 57 percent overall.
The number includes a whopping 62 percent of independents. Just 27 percent of them think Trump does represent the GOP.
And the NBC-WSJ poll might be even more encouraging for Republicans, because it suggests a path forward for them. The poll asked whether registered voters would be more likely to support a congressional Republican who would be a check and balance on Clinton and Democrats, and 53 percent said they would. Just 40 percent preferred a congressional Democrat who would help Clinton pass her agenda.
This is not to suggest that there will be no long term repercussions from this year’s experiment, nor to predict that the party will inevitably learn the right lessons. Rather, it is to say that it is eminently possible that Republicans will escape their great mistake with flesh wounds, not mortal injuries, and that 2016 may not in fact represent the total unraveling of the post-08 rebuilding project. At all levels of American life there is a reshuffle afoot — a reshuffle that will hit the Left as well as the Right. It is far too early to discern the word “Whigs” in the tea leaves that are being kicked up.