Yuval Levin has written one of the best analyses of the Republican primary. In it, he argues that the central theme of the campaign is the relationship between America’s political establishment and the public at large, and that each of the four major contenders offers a different diagnosis. To simplify, Trump thinks the establishment is stupid, Christie thinks it is weak, Cruz that it is corrupt, and Rubio that its ideas are anachronistic. There is, of course, an element of truth to each candidate’s message.
Yuval’s framing makes clear an important distinction in the field that is relevant to the ongoing debate on the future of the Republican party. Though the basic “establishment” and “anti-establishment” labels, applied so often to the field by the media, sometimes muddle as much as they clarify, there really are two camps in this primary: Those who seek to revitalize the establishment and the party by fixing their flaws, and those who think there is a more fundamental problem with the nature of the establishment itself, a matter of identity that cannot be repaired merely with the right president or policy platform.
Christie and other so-called “establishment” candidates clearly fall into the former category. So too, though, does Rubio, a candidate with anti-establishment credentials and a genuinely disruptive message and agenda (just ask the insurance industry) that stands out from those of his competitors.
What Rubio tends to emphasize less than other anti-establishment candidates like Cruz — and the reason so many are so quick to paint him falsely with the “establishment” brush — is that the deficiencies of the Republican agenda are a direct result of the entrenched power of longstanding members of the Republican establishment, and that the need for policy reform cannot be fulfilled without achieving structural reform of the Republican party to dislodge the establishment that enforces adherence its own 20th-century ideas.
Cruz shares Trump’s sense that the current establishment is not merely misguided but irredeemable. But where Trump’s message is a pure identity play — they are stupid and corrupt, I am smart and incorruptible — Cruz’s offers a structural analysis of our political challenges that directly relates to the policy reforms he has proposed: A Washington energy cartel that maintains the subsidies his reforms would eliminate; a Washington health-care cartel that wrote Obamacare and will seek to write its replacement; a Washington big-business cartel that would subvert the rule of law to secure its existing labor model through amnesty.
The need not just for a conservative reform agenda but also for a reformed Republican party is the defining challenge of American politics today, and it is one that the party’s leaders will never be able to solve on their own.
This question — Does the flaw in the GOP establishment lie in its ideas or in its very nature? — is critical to the debate about the direction of the center-right. That the GOP’s ideas in recent years have been stale is incontrovertible, and Republican leaders have long signaled some vague awareness that the party’s dated agenda is a political problem. Several years ago, House leadership turned to Domino’s Pizza, then in the midst of a major marketing campaign and recipe reshuffle, as the corporate template for how the GOP could return to favor in the public eye. They brought Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle to their 2013 congressional retreat, and his theme — we are not without blame and are asking the public for a second chance to get it right — has been prevalent in many Republican speeches (most recently, on Tuesday night in South Carolina governor Nikki Haley’s State of the Union response).
But to ask for a second chance and declare an abstract commitment to reform will never be sufficient in itself. The political establishment cannot confront the real nature of the Republican party’s problem because it cannot admit its own role in the problem, which would require the party to bring in new leaders along with a new platform.
Another corporate example is instructive: Blockbuster Video. One big reason for Blockbuster’s demise at the hands of Netflix can be found in the Marco Rubio explanation for the ills of the political establishment. By the end of the 20th century, Blockbuster was anachronistic. Driving to a store, picking up a VHS tape, going home, and then having to do the same trip over again the next day to return the tape was the past; DVDs delivered by mail, and ultimately movies and shows streamed online, were the future. The ideas in Blockbuster’s business model were antiquated.
The type of innovation needed to bring public policy into the 21st century upsets interests that are well represented in Washington.
But merely understanding this reality was not enough for Blockbuster, and it’s not enough for Rubio. In addition to having an anachronistic business model, Blockbuster was weighed down by gargantuan fixed costs from the past that it would need to shed in order to compete in the future. Having over 6,000 retail stores around the country was a cost that weighed down Blockbuster and kept it from reorienting its model. Blockbuster had a flaw of design, not just of ideas.
This is Cruz’s structural critique. The type of innovation needed to bring public policy into the 21st century upsets interests that are well represented in Washington. Every loophole in the tax code has a constituency, every Soviet-style provision in the farm bill has its interest. As such, real policy innovation requires not just putting forth fresh ideas; it requires attacking the flawed nature of the GOP establishment so that innovation can even be possible.
The proof of the structural flaw in the GOP establishment is that despite a presumably genuine desire to rebrand itself like Domino’s, there is absolutely no fresh policy thinking coming from the establishment wing of the party. Rather, it’s coming from members like Ben Sasse, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and the House Freedom Caucus. They won on promises of disruption that allowed them to propel themselves past establishment favorites like Charlie Crist and David Dewhurst. They proved that today’s politicians don’t need the blessing of the Senate majority leader, the Chamber of Congress, or K Street lobbyists to succeed in the modern Republican party.
The Rubio message — that the Republican party’s agenda is anachronistic — is absolutely correct. But the Cruz message — that an innovative Republican agenda cannot be achieved so long as the party is saddled with its legacy baggage — is an essential complement to any reform agenda. Each candidate needs to improve his presentation to fully make the case for himself. Rubio needs to prove he understands that the establishment’s weakness is not just its ideas but also its nature. Cruz needs to emphasize how his structural attacks on the nature of the establishment will serve the cause of advancing a bold policy agenda.
What’s absolutely critical if we are to move past the turbulent nature of this campaign cycle is that the Republican party of the future needs to embrace a debate on both the ideas and the nature of its party leadership. The primary electorate would eagerly embrace candidates who do so.
— Michael A. Needham is CEO of Heritage Action for America.