Politics & Policy

How Conservative Intransigence Helped Give Us Trump

(Jim Young/Reuters)
Republicans used to recognize the value of the incremental win. They'll have to rediscover it if they want to rebuild going forward.

Barring some kind of delegate miracle, the Republican party will nominate Donald Trump as its nominee for president next week. In a year when they could have chosen any number of true conservatives — Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz, among others — primary voters instead chose Trump, a candidate attempting to lure left-wing Bernie Sanders voters by tweeting about his opposition to free trade and blaming Wall Street for our economic problems.

Such a scenario would have been inconceivable even a decade ago. But that was before President George W. Bush bailed out AIG, worked with Democrats in Congress to pass the $700 billion TARP, and provided emergency bailout cash to the auto industry. Combined with the election of Barack Obama and the passage of his own stimulus package, these choices helped to launch the Tea Party in 2009.

At the same time, something was changing within the conservative movement. Up to then, the majority of pundits, writers, talk-radio hosts, and politicians had been interested in practical change; afterward, they began a constant quest to seek out and amplify grievances. Angered by what they saw as Bush’s capitulation to Democrats — and by the nomination of John McCain to run against Obama — a faction of conservatives began to treat any concessions to the other side, no matter how small, as ideologically treasonous.

Just over 20 years ago, a Republican-controlled Congress prepared to send then-president Clinton a welfare-reform bill that would bring sweeping changes to America’s entitlement apparatus. Welfare reform was one of ten pieces of legislation promised in the House GOP’s “Contract with America.” That document, drafted in part by Newt Gingrich in the summer of 1994, was credited with helping Republicans retake the House months later. Not all of the promises it contained became law, even after the GOP took over. But several did, welfare reform being one of them. It was an incremental win for the GOP and conservatives were rightly impressed.

Egged on by anger, The Faction demands 100 percent fealty and declares anything less to be ‘failure.’

Nowadays, such an incremental win would spawn a thousand revolts. Rather than cheering the Right advancing the ball, The Faction, as I call them, would tear out their hair. Instead of moving on to the next victory, they would proclaim from their soapboxes that they’d been “betrayed,” and send out e-mails asking for money to stop the dreaded “establishment” from “working with Obama” to “ruin” the country. Today, the small win has become a relic. Egged on by anger, The Faction demands 100 percent fealty and declares anything less to be “failure.”

At no point was this more evident than last year, when Paul Ryan, having become speaker of the House, was tasked with pushing through his first budget. Ryan had inherited somewhat of a mess from John Boehner; rather than funding the government via regular order and appropriations bills, the House was working with a large omnibus bill. Despite this, Ryan was able to secure some wins in the subsequent budget negotiation — wins that in years past would have been treated as such:

  1. $680 billion in tax breaks. Ryan’s budget extended many tax breaks set to expire and, in fact, made many of them permanent, in what was a boon to small businesses.
  2. Elimination of the ban on crude-oil exports. In reality, this was a huge win for Ryan, the GOP and the country. Months before it happened, nobody would have believed Ryan could achieve it.
  3. Two Obamacare taxes postponed — the ‘Cadillac tax’ and the medical-device tax.
  4. An overhaul of the Visa Waiver program that bars anybody who has visited Syria or Iraq in the last five years from entering the U.S. without a visa.

It didn’t matter. As soon as the deal was announced, #DumpRyan began to trend. Within hours, The Faction had declared the speaker an Obama puppet.

#share#The opprobrium continues unabated. This year, Ryan has drawn a clownish primary opponent in Paul Nehlen, who is attacking him from the right. This is the same Paul Ryan with an A rating from the NRA, a 100 percent rating from the National Right To Life Committee, and a 90 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. It’s hard to argue he’s insufficiently conservative.

Republicans lost presidential elections in 1992 and 1996 as they did in 2008 and 2012. Yet one can make the case conservatives enjoyed more victories in the 1990s than they did after 2007, despite facing a country just as politically divided then as it is now. Republicans successfully worked with Clinton to gain wins on welfare reform, tax cuts, and slowing the growth of spending. Did the GOP get everything it wanted? Of course not. Republican leaders recognized and worked within their limitations.

#related#By contrast, it’s hard to point to a significant victory won by the GOP since 2009. Why? Because Republicans became beholden to a small group of people who yelled at the top of their lungs that any give and take was “capitulation.” They preferred to let go of incremental wins in favor of impossible, symbolic stands that almost always achieved no concrete gains.

At some point, real conservatives will take back control of the party, and ensure that the American Right once again recognizes the importance of the incremental win. By doing so, they will allow the party to build a record of accomplishment on which a conservative can run for and win the White House once again. Then, and only then, will the bigger victories that everybody so strongly desires materialize.

— Jay Caruso is a contributing editor at RedState.com and co-host of The Fifth Estate podcast. He lives in Atlanta.

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