Politics & Policy

How the GOP Can Remake Itself after 2016

Republican delegate at the convention, July 22, 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Trump’s expected loss is an opportunity to embrace truly limited government.

If Donald Trump’s convention speech were to be taken at face value, one could only conclude that the United States were no better a place to live than the Third World.

Certainly, Trump tapped into anxieties that are held by Republican voters — specifically, on trade, immigration, upward mobility, and the perception that U.S.-based companies do not actually care about their own employees. But he went much further than that. Trump took a page out of the Democrats’ playbook, using demagoguery, division, and anger to fuel his ascent. It was an approach that worked for him in a primary that was split among a number of candidates, but it doesn’t work for the electorate at large.

After Mitt Romney was defeated in 2012, the GOP conducted a “post mortem,” the purpose of which was to make inroads with the working poor, with minorities, and with women — all consistently pro-Democratic voting blocs. In the 2016 cycle, Trump completely upended the GOP’s restoration plans, and forced them back to the drawing board.

This has served as a major setback for a party that looked to be on the verge of domination. And yet, if it is clever, the GOP can use the opportunity to its advantage. Barring some major catastrophe, Donald Trump will likely lose to Hillary Clinton. And, when he does, his defeat will spell the end of the GOP as we know it, and the beginning of a new Republican party that is better placed to advance conservative ideals.

Although the political landscape has changed in recent years, the GOP has struggled to adapt its voter-appeal approach to the times. As is now clear, Republicans can no longer merely talk of “lower taxes and smaller government,” in order to get people to listen and to vote. They must take a different approach, but without having to surrender conservative principles to do so.

For over 20 years, the Republican party has embraced larger and more expansive government. In George W. Bush’s administration alone, Republicans supported No Child Left Behind, the 2002 Farm Bill, and Medicare Part D, among other things. In so doing, they advanced the idea that government can work so long as the right party is the one aiding its expansion. It is for this reason that voters are cynical when Republicans promise to, say, abolish the Department of Commerce. Given past results, they know that it is not going to happen.

They also wonder, “What does that have to do with me?” As a general rule, Americans do not trust technocrats, which is one reason that decentralization of government is so important. But there are better ways to achieve this than talking about ridding the country of national departments. In making its case for federalism, the GOP must emphasize the role of local communities and organizations, and attempt to connect to the people who live in the places they praise. With his approach to combating poverty, “A Better Way,” Paul Ryan has shown the model. Among other things, Ryan’s plan does away with a one-size-fits-all approach, while advocating accountability at the local level, including partnerships with private-sector companies to raise capital for social programs they know to work, a tier-based funding system designed to encourage the development of new policy ideas, and a pay-for-outcomes model that promotes healthy competition among the states and allows for the termination of programs that are not working.

Donald Trump’s promise to “bring back the jobs” is an empty one, but his focus on workers is a positive feature of his campaign. It is possible for the Republican party to acknowledge both that the days of factory-line work are over and that this is not the fault of free trade but of supply-chain innovation and automation on factory floors. If they are smart, Republicans will address the pressing issue of jobs by focusing less on NAFTA, and more on skills-based education and work.

Or, put another way: Marco Rubio was right when he said the country needs more welders. Indeed, skilled trades, once thought of as “beneath” the work that requires a college education, are widely available and pay extremely well. In addition, “coding bootcamps” have been popping up across the country. Designed to train people in the skill of front and back-end web development, these schools emphasize four to six months of training designed to equip students with the skills necessary to be hired as well-paid web developers. If Republicans really wanted to get serious about reducing student-loan debt — while at the same time filling the skills gap — they would do well to rework accreditation standards so people can receive financial assistance to attend technical colleges and coding boot camps at a fraction of what a four-year degree costs.

Instead of picking winners and losers, the GOP must allow the market to work for everybody.

Republicans must also adjust their approach to business, emphasizing the free market over fealty to corporate America. Sure, freeing up oil exports and doing away with the medical-device tax in Obamacare will both provide tangible results for people down the line. But, as beneficial as those policies are, they are still perceived by voters as measures that primarily benefit business. Combine that with blatant government favoritism such as subsidies in the tax code, preferential regulations, farm subsidies, corporate welfare, and federal guarantees against failure, people are left thinking the Republican party exists only to further the interests of big business. Instead of picking winners and losers, the GOP must allow the market to work for everybody.

To this end, Republicans should emphasize that they stand for choice. In our increasingly consumer-driven economy, businesses such as Uber, Airbnb, and Silver Car are popular precisely because they give individuals more control over how they spend their money. If the GOP wants to be seen as the party that stands on the side of those who crave more control, it should embrace policies that empower people to use similar business models, and to take advantage of their offerings without impediment.

Naturally, there will still be a set of core national issues that the GOP must fight for, including religious freedom, the right to keep and bear arms, the protection of the unborn, and a robust national defense. And yet, if they are to compete in this century, they will have to emerge as a party willing to do away with their sweeping top-down rhetorical approach they have promised and to come out in favor of a bottom-up approach that emphasizes local communities, civic organizations, local business groups, and local houses of worship.

Donald Trump is likely to mark the end of an era for national Republican politics. But from that end, there is a chance to make a new beginning. The GOP will soon have that opportunity; the question is whether they’ll be willing to seize it.

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