Politics & Policy

Recriminations or Reconciliation? A Response to Peter Spiliakos

Sign at a Trump rally in Manheim, Pa., October 2, 2016. (Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
Yes, it will take ‘honesty and humility’ to rebuild the Republican party — it also means accurately appraising the causes of the Trump catastrophe.

It’s always gratifying to learn that your work is read. It’s even more heartening when other talented analysts have found it worthy of a response. For that honor, I thank The Atlantic’s David Frum and National Review’s Peter Spiliakos. Spiliakos’s essay in response to my column on the terms upon which the Republican coalition can be reformed in a post-Trump environment merits a brief reply.

Spiliakos calls for “honesty and humility” in the process of reuniting the GOP after 2016, but begins that process by accusing me of duplicity. My motives are insincere, he suggests, and my true intention is to rehabilitate the 113th Congress’s approach to the pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform. That I made no mention of immigration whatsoever is no obstacle to reaching this conclusion.

In my column, I set the terms upon which the GOP can and, in fact, must reunite in one modest ask: “In short, Republicans of all stripes must be made to acknowledge and accept that Trumpism is an experiment that failed.” This is a reasonable concession. It requires only an acknowledgment that Donald Trump and the deviation his philosophy represents from conservatism sacrificed a winnable election, and may yet result in the loss of one or both of the GOP’s hard-won congressional majorities.

Reviving the heated internecine squabbles of 2016 and earlier is a dead end. Whatever anyone did in this annus horribilis must be forgiven. Did you endorse Trump? Did you oppose him? Did you rail against his program? Did you find merit in the nobility of the outrage into which he tapped? None of that matters. All is water under the bridge. Reuniting the coalition and focusing on stymieing Hillary Clinton’s legislative objectives matters far more now than self-righteousness and the pursuit of retroactive vindication.

Spiliakos seems to see in the above terms posturing and preening. In my view, Donald Trump ran the campaign that Republicans warned about in their review of the 2012 election results. It was a campaign of naked grievance and identity politics. He Balkanized the electorate, but was not nearly as skillful at it as is the Left. He sought to maximize the turnout of white voters and, in so doing, alienated the members of Barack Obama’s coalition that Republicans knew they had to splinter; namely, women, minorities, and young voters. There was a road map to pursue this strategy of dividing and conquering: The Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project, which became unflatteringly dubbed “the autopsy.”

This 97-page set of recommendations for how the GOP can appeal to single women, college students, Latinos, Asian Americans, and African Americans is replete with recommendations, but Spiliakos sees only one: passing comprehensive immigration reform. He contended that this is the only “specific policy” that the autopsy recommended, and that’s true insofar as it was the only legislative remedy in the plan. “Rothman hasn’t explicitly called for the adoption of Gang of Eight–style immigration reform, but everybody knows what is going on,” Spiliakos divined. He presumes to know me better than I know myself.

In my view, Donald Trump ran the campaign that Republicans warned about in review of the 2012 election results.

My personal policy preferences are irrelevant, as I tried to communicate. If I must expound on them, I am ambivalent toward immigration reform. It is curious that so many who myopically focus on the detrimental aspects of immigration-reform legislation are keen to see in others their own preoccupation. I count myself a conservative because of its embrace of traditional values, free enterprise, individual liberty, and the robust defense of American national interests abroad. If more minorities can be persuaded to vote for those principles and the candidates that support them, all the better. In raising the matter of immigration as a policy matter, however, Spiliakos highlights one of the great costs associated with Donald Trump’s nomination. It is entirely possible that immigration will now be resolved in 2017–18, and on the Democrats’ terms.

Republicans weren’t paying much attention to the Democratic primary in March. They had their own contest to focus on, so they might have missed what Hillary Clinton was promising to pursue in her first 100 days as president. “We enhanced the border security. That part of the work is done,” Clinton told the viewers of an early March Democratic debate. “Let’s move to comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship.” She didn’t stop there. She pledged to end family detention, to speed up the process of family reunification, and to enshrine Barack Obama’s executive actions on deferred deportations — even those halted by the courts — into law. Moreover, Democrats will pursue these policies armed with polling that consistently shows that a majority of the public, including Republicans, favor the resolution of the immigration issue.

It remains to be seen what the partisan makeup of the next Congress will be. If, however, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing Clinton with an eleven-point advantage over Trump and Democrats with a bigger generic-ballot advantage than at any point since the 2013 government shutdown is correct, the GOP will be powerless to prevent the implementation of this agenda. The Gang of Eight will appear circumspect in comparison with what Democrats will pursue. Spiliakos claims to know in his heart that I am a closet advocate of the 2013 immigration-reform plan because I note that the Right’s immigration absolutists wanted a referendum on their view. He is entitled to his suspicions. That does not change the fact that these GOP primary voters got their wish, and the results are not going to be pretty.

Relitigating the presidential-primary process that yielded a candidate who will likely lose a winnable race for the White House, and perhaps take the GOP’s congressional majorities with him, is precisely what I contend we must avoid. Conservative reformers and critics of the Beltway GOP are fortunate that Trump’s tenuous grasp of policy and his vague prescriptions allow them to project onto his amorphous movement their own priors. This is a fallacious way to go about understanding and correcting for the Trump phenomenon.

Trump supporters are, indeed, owed concessions from the GOP. They have clearly demonstrated that the Republican party does not serve their interests and, if the GOP is to remain a nationally viable party, it must retain their support. But what are the 55 percent of Republican primary voters who did not support Donald Trump owed? Nothing? Have they not demonstrated their political potency just as much as have Donald Trump voters? At what point does the GOP stop refighting the 2016 primaries? Where does this process of recriminations end?

Spiliakos closes by projecting on me the demand that Trump supporters express “repentance,” but I called for nothing of the sort. The only amnesty I’m advocating is of a blanket sort for Republicans, almost all Republicans, with the understanding that perpetually revisiting past battles is unproductive. When it comes to Trump’s rise, no one on the right or left is faultless. All must take stock of our roles in leading the GOP into this cul-de-sac. They should not have to fear the Star Chambers in doing so. Surrender to Clinton is not an option. Recapitulating an effective opposition party must be the first and only goal of a post-Trump GOP.

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