Donald Trump entered the Republican presidential primaries vowing that he would show the Republican party how to win again. It was a curious claim then, and it is a more curious claim now.
It is a curious claim now in that Trump, barring some black-swan-level event, is not going to win. If the election were held today, the most likely outcome would be that Hillary Rodham Clinton would finish with well over 300 electoral votes, easily besting Trump. Trump has even managed to put Texas and its 38 electoral votes into play. That’s a bit short of the “so much winning, you’ll get tired of it” that he boasted of; it isn’t even a little bit of winning, or even a decent showing.
It was a curious claim at the beginning of the primary season, too, in that Republicans had been doing a historically unprecedented amount of winning. They had a majority in the Senate, a substantial majority in the House, and a large majority of state governorships and state legislative houses. Even in Florida, a 50/50 Republican/Democratic state, Republicans could not do anything but win when it came to statewide offices and Senate elections. On top of all that, a generation-long project of judicial reform had borne fruit in the form of two very important Supreme Court victories, one for the First Amendment and one for the Second Amendment, which, the justices ruled, mean what they say, after all.
But nobody wins them all.
Republicans were twice defeated by Barack Obama. The first defeat came in a year in which war-weariness, Republican scandals, and a financial crisis ensured that no Republican was going to win the White House; the second came when Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, an excellent man who probably would have been an excellent president but who was a poor candidate, 2012 not being the year to be a square Mormon gazillionaire having to defend the record of a private-equity firm sharing a name (homophonically, at least) with a Batman villain.
But the consequences of those defeats were very different. The first one produced results that were catastrophic, because the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was accompanied by Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. That is why the grievously misnamed Affordable Care Act was inflicted upon the country, and that — not the 2008 financial crisis — is why we had gargantuan deficits in those years, the Obama-Pelosi-Reid triumvirate having complete control of the elected branches of government. Once Americans sobered up, Republican congressional majorities set about reducing those deficits and ameliorating the worst of the Obama administration’s excesses, but tremendous damage already had been done. There was damage done in the second Obama administration, too, but nothing like what happened under unitary Democratic control of the federal government.
There was damage done in the second Obama administration, too, but nothing like what happened under unitary Democratic control of the federal government.
There is a great deal of drama in national politics, but experience with politics at the smaller scale — at the state or local scale, or even at the school-board scale — can be much more instructive. If you ever have been part of an effort to, say, repeal an onerous and unfair tax, end racial discrimination in the admissions standards of public universities, or repeal a backwards and destructive regulation, then you know that these projects can take years or even decades, that victory is never certain nor permanent nor unqualified, and that the democratic process is enormously frustrating. Democrats did not start dreaming up their statist health-care programs when Barack Obama was nominated; they have been working on this since the 1960s, and they are not finished yet.
The Republican party — stupid and corrupt as it often is — has in fact provided a number of dramatic victories for conservatives in recent years: the spread of right-to-work laws and school-choice programs, lower tax rates, trade liberalization, affirmations of the First and Second Amendments, restrictions on abortion, including a national ban on partial-birth abortion, etc. (See Charles C. W. Cooke, “What Has Conservatism Ever Done for Us?”) Consider the state-level work that has been done in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma. These are not trivial victories — these are the small things that in the end add up to big things.
Some conservatives — more right-wing populists than conservatives properly understood — were driven mad by Barack Obama, some for reasons having to do with race and culture, some because of his imperious and insufferable style, some for other reasons. These right-wing populists did not think much of the Republican victories of the past 20 years, dismissing them as nothing more than coastal elites pursuing their own ends. (Who knew that Manhattan investment bankers cared so deeply about our Second Amendment rights, or that defense contractors in Virginia fretted about abortion?) They believe that Barack Obama is uniquely evil (rather than being an updated Jimmy Carter or a slightly more refined Lyndon Johnson) and that the Republican party has betrayed them to accommodate him because they fear — here the story becomes positively absurd — that they might suffer socially if they took too strong a stand. Georgetown cocktail parties and all that. The financial interests of cable-news has-beens and talk-radio ranters in maintaining that “betrayal” storyline will be of some interest and worth revisiting in the aftermath of what’s coming on Election Day.
Barring a truly dramatic turnaround, there is going to be a first Hillary Rodham Clinton administration. The question for conservatives in the electoral trenches and for Republican voters is whether it will be like the first two years of the first Obama administration — unencumbered by legislative resistance — or like the second Obama administration, relatively constrained.
The Republican majority in Congress is like a hard and unpleasant job with long hours, but one that pays reasonably well: If you don’t like it, try doing without it for a while and see how that works out for you.