Politics & Policy

The GOP Needs to Run against the Last 16 Years

Had the mathematician Sir Isaac Newton had the chance to devote his life to modern American politics instead of to explaining the elementary rules of physics, the Third Law might have looked a little different. “In every change election,” Newton would presumably have discerned, “there is always presented a reaction to what has gone before.”

Thus, in 1920, did Warren Harding’s ascetic, non-interventionist, and explicitly anti-Progressive conservatism represent a welcome shift from the all-encompassing disaster that was Woodrow Wilson’s untrammeled ambition. Thus, in 1976, did Jimmy Carter’s preposterous God-has-heard-my-heart-sinning pseudo-shtick help to convince the electorate that his election was what it would take to move on from the cynicism and the ugliness of Watergate. And thus, in 2008 did the aloof, calm, and at least ostensibly professorial Barack Obama ride a wave of vague hope-and-change sentiment all the way to the White House. Want to know who will be the next president? Start by looking at the last guy.

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Look at the political climate, too. For as long as the party system remains intact, we will hear absolutist rhetoric come election time. “Vote for me,” one side will say, “and everything will be perfect.” “Vote for the other guy,” it will add, “and you’ll be pushed screaming into a volcano.” Occasionally, this tack can be an effective one — certainly, in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt did not need a great deal of help painting the Republican party as a failure. Most of the time, however, it is not. That being so, if Republicans hope to take advantage of the sour public mood in 2016, they will have to do more than merely hit the other side for having been imperfect while in power; they will have to recognize that they too bear some responsibility for the national mood.

There is no doubt that the manner in which Obama has behaved as president has contributed significantly to our present anxieties. Indeed, one can only imagine that students of political language will one day be fascinated by the gaping hole that has opened up between his campaign rhetoric and his governing prose. And yet, for all of the incumbent’s failures, it seems clear that America’s present funk did not begin in earnest on January 20, 2009. Rather, it can be dated back to the attacks of September 11, and to their various consequences. In a similar vein, it should by now be obvious to conservatives that the last American Golden Age obtained not during George W. Bush’s rather disappointing tenure, but in the mid- to late- 1990s, when the Republican party ran both houses of Congress and Democrat Bill Clinton ran the executive branch. If they are to run a successful campaign — and, crucially, if they are to capitalize upon the electorate’s present dissatisfactions — Republicans will need to acknowledge that they are not only running against the Obama administration, but against a broader national melancholia to which they themselves have contributed.

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Perhaps the best-kept secret in modern American life is that most apolitical people do not in fact divide history into neat presidential-shaped chunks — as might a historian focused on a hereditary monarchy — but think instead about how they and their families are doing, about where the country is going, and about what they have recently lost or gained. However one cuts it, the last 15 years have been peculiar and they have been confusing. Economically, culturally, and spiritually, America is not where it was during its brief “holiday from history.” Rather, it is divided, under-confident, and lost. If the Right is looking for something to push against — and if its candidates are seeking an anxiety that it can promise to fix — it should be that general sense of malaise. Simply promising to replace Barack Obama is not going to cut it.

There are Republican candidates who can do this and there are candidates who cannot, and, worryingly for the GOP, the primary among those “cannots” is the front-runner. Sure, Jeb Bush is an impressive man. But to nominate him at this moment would be to push Republicans in the wrong direction and to force them into doing something that they should really not want to do: namely, re-litigating – and perhaps even defending – the political decisions that were made between 2000 and 2008. Contrary to the myopic claims that popped up around the time of Barack Obama’s reelection, progressivism has not in fact taken hold of the American imagination. Despite his early wins, moreover, both Barack Obama and his agenda have descended into unpopularity and into fatigue. But it would be a considerable mistake to conclude from this that there is any great yearning to return to 2005. If they are offered a choice between “Clinton” — a name that evokes peace and prosperity — and “Bush” – a name that has been rather run through the mud – they will almost certainly choose the former.

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Instead, the conservative play should be to put up an attractive newcomer and to hope that he can persuade the electorate to turn its back on the established machine. Who should that be? Well, that depends primarily on aesthetics rather than policy. I take no pleasure in writing this: In an ideal world, our elections would be held on paper, our candidates would be expected to eschew the superficial, and the president would be heard from only if there were a war or a tsunami. Policy, and not television commercials, would rule the political roost. In the real world, however, messaging matters a great, great deal. If they are serious about winning in 2016, conservatives should make sure that they pick a candidate who is capable not only of tapping into the contemporary dissatisfaction, but of breaking with his own party’s past, too. Bush cannot do that. Few can.

#related#Exactly who can will hinge upon where the country finds itself by the end of the year. If by early 2016 it has become clear that America is tired of Barack Obama’s celebrity; that Hillary’s status as a permanent member of the elite class is beginning to grate; and that Washington is seen as an out-of-touch club for the rich and the famous, then the Republican party might consider borrowing a slogan from a century ago and offering the public a 1920s style “Return to Normalcy.” With his homespun tales of one-dollar sweaters, his quiet Midwestern roots, and his down-to-earth everyman appearance, Scott Walker would do well running such a campaign — as, indeed, might a John Kasich or a Rick Snyder.

If, by contrast, it seems that the country needs a young figure who was not around for the great battles of the first decade of the 21st century; if it seems that there is room for a candidate who can lift the country up and explain how it has abandoned its principles; and if it seems that Americans need reminding that they are exceptional and that they can be so in the future, the party may try the sort of “Morning in America” approach that is perfectly suited to a Marco Rubio, to a Ted Cruz, or to a Rand Paul. Which of these approaches will be the best fit remains to be seen. But the investigation will need to start now. Hillary Clinton may have staged a risible and schizophrenic campaign launch, and she may well be a poor and stumbling politician. But she has a distinct advantage: Her name is associated with a great era in American life. If the Grand Old Party is to ensure that she does not preside over another four years of gradual political rot, it will need to work out what exactly it is reacting to within the country’s soul. Primary voters must keep their eye on the ball.

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