Over the last week, a revealing debate about the Republican party response to Donald Trump’s candidacy has broken out between the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and Ross Douthat, a leading “reformocon” writer. Both sides are focused on what Republican leaders such as House speaker Paul Ryan should be doing right now. The truth is that the array of options for Ryan or any other party leader is remarkably thin in the short term. What is needed instead is a robust debate about why the party is as fractured as it is and about what, if anything, needs to change for the GOP to be a viable, conservative party.
On Speaker Ryan’s role with respect to the Trump candidacy, the Wall Street Journal in an editorial on Friday raises some fair points in its defense of Ryan. For example, it is probably true that, as the chairman of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer, he should be disciplined in maintaining his neutrality in the presidential primary.
Douthat thinks that he should be far less “muted” in his response to “Trumpism.” He points out the Journal editorial is oddly underwhelming. He’s right. With good arguments on both sides, why does the paper’s defense of Ryan read so remarkably flat?
The reason that the Journal’s response is so strange is that, while the opportunity for opposition to the Trump candidacy right now is limited, the environment in which the candidacy has thrived was created by the lack of ingenuity of the Republican leadership since the 2010 election. And nobody has been more supportive of the GOP’s head-in-the-sand approach to its electorate during this time than the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, those stenographers for the Republican leadership.
Those of us who have been pushing for a reform agenda have frequently found ourselves at odds with a D.C. establishment whose base of power relies on the status quo: lobbyists whose expertise lies in understanding the intricacies of the current code; consultants who have honed the art of campaigning on the issues that campaigns have been fought on for the last 30 years; incumbent politicians comfortable with the issues they know.
For whatever reason, the Wall Street Journal has largely been absent from the introspective debate about the future of the Republican party — a debate that’s been going on for the past several years — and instead has placed its trust in Republican congressional leaders and dutifully reproduced their arguments. As I argue in National Affairs (winter 2015), the type of reform agenda needed to apply conservative principles to the challenges we face today is necessarily disruptive of a Washington insider class whose members have made their careers off their understanding the fissures, messages, and policy fights of the past:
The Tea Party sees the insider game in Washington not as peripheral to the persistence of the most pressing challenges of the day but rather as a proximate cause for inaction by the political class — Republicans and Democrats alike — on the big issues. . . . On issue after issue, flawed policy either results from or results in the dominance of cartelized power structures that would necessarily collapse under conservative reforms. For risk-averse politicians dependent on lobbyist-sponsored fundraisers, the political fallout from displeasing the current beneficiaries of these systems is simply too great a danger, and the Republican Party has therefore long been complacent about pursuing disruptive ideas.
A reform agenda requires disruption. Disruption is naturally threatening to the current power structure, of which the Journal has been a reliable defender.
#share#Since the 2010 election, leaders of the status quo camp have controlled the Republican party and have sought to define the art of the possible for conservative policy victories. As such, the party has spent virtually no time addressing the themes animating Trump’s candidacy. At each and every step of the way, the Journal editorial board has defended this lack of policy introspection. In 2013, for example, when the Republican agenda was to push a deeply unpopular amnesty program. the Journal ran an editorial attacking “the blood-and-soil wing” of the Republican party, equating border-security proponents with Nazis.
The GOP joined a Democrat-led effort to increase gun control, during which the Journal attacked the ultimately successful filibuster effort of Senators Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Ted Cruz (R., Texas). The Journal was skeptical of conservative efforts in the summer of 2011 to use the leverage of raising the debt limit to secure spending cuts. Then it defended the spending cuts, which it had opposed, in order to fight virtually every other proposal conservatives have tried to push since then. When Cruz voted last year against expanding President Obama’s executive power to negotiate trade deals because he objected to a Senate deal that Republicans had cut with Senator Patty Murray (D., Wash.) to vote to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, the Journal threw in the towel on that corporate-welfare fight only one week before conservatives prevailed in temporarily ending the Bank’s authorization.
That is the story of the last six years. A Republican electorate increasingly screaming at its elected officials and demanding answers to its anxieties runs up against Republican elites who have refused to listen. In explaining the calamitous state of the Republican party, we should recognize that its leaders deserve the bulk of the blame. They have ignored and demeaned their voters, who have had enough and are today overwhelmingly supporting the GOP elites’ two least favorite candidates, Trump and Cruz, to lead the party.
Trump’s campaign is a response to completely valid feelings — feelings that the political class has neglected very real wage and price concerns felt across America; fear that a political class too afraid of political correctness has allowed both our culture and our national security to run away from us; anger that, despite clear electoral mandates to check the excesses of the Obama administration, the Republican leadership has been more interested in proving that it could govern than in playing an oppositional role. On all of these matters, the 21st-century Republican party — and, importantly, its enablers in the media, consultant class, and donor community — is guilty as charged.
#related#At this point, it is beyond dispute that the Republican National Committee autopsy after the 2012 election was a disaster at diagnosing a winning path forward for the party. It is beyond dispute that the Republican agenda of the last six years has done nothing but alienate its base and drive the party into the ditch. It is beyond dispute that the Republican party has lacked a statesman capable of understanding what its voters feel, channeling that emotion to a higher purpose, and using that agenda to unify the party and enact policy victories.
Douthat’s argument comes down to the fact that the Republican party has lacked statesmanship during this period of rapid economic, cultural, and international disruption. It’s an argument that is without dispute. Attacking the motives of those who refuse to march in lockstep with the Republican leadership has proven to be a colossal failure. Now is the time to work together to figure out what a modern center-right movement looks like.