What Does It Mean to Vote Republican Today?

A voter fills out her ballot in Madison, Wis., November 6, 2018. (Nick Oxford/Reuters )
The party is neither fish nor fowl.

The post-Kavanaugh moment of Republican unity, where MAGA-hat wearers and think tankers in loafers both cheered Susan Collins in defense of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, seems like it was a long time ago. What does it mean to vote Republican today? I don’t think anyone knows for certain, and that’s one of the problems the party faces as it goes to the voters.

Some of my colleagues and peers just accept that there is Trump and then there is your local Republican. “I evaluate the individual whose name is on the ballot, not the president who isn’t yet up for reelection,” writes David French. In its election editorial the Washington Examiner confidently declares that “real conservatives will vote Republican,” even though “there can be reasonable debate over whether a conservative ought to vote for Trump, either in 2016 or in 2020.” (It also notes “a few places where there is a decent case to be made that conservatives should not support Republican candidates.”)

On the other side, my longtime friend Daniel McCarthy writes in the New York Times that there is no going back: The party belongs to Donald Trump the way it once belonged to Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. The winning coalition for Republicans is necessarily larger than dedicated conservatives, and includes a nationalist element. Trump has rebuilt the formula that gave Nixon and Reagan landslides, he argues.

Of course, Trump’s party is hemorrhaging voters, congressmen, and potentially governors in the states where Trump scored an upset. Anticipating the potential fallout for the GOP in Congress, McCarthy concludes by blaming Republican House candidates for incomprehension of the political moment: “Few Republicans running this year seem to understand what gave Mr. Trump his edge in 2016 — it was not that he was simply combative and rhetorically right-wing. It was that he had a vision of what it meant to make American great again, by making the Republicans a party for the nation again.”

But Trump himself won a squeaker of an election. His coalition may have similarities to Reagan’s, and it may be well-distributed to grant an Electoral College victory against an unpopular Democrat, but it’s far from clear what else it can accomplish — and for the time being, it is shrinking.

Right now the Republican party is neither fish nor fowl. Trump won while promising to make a “worker’s party” that “took care of everyone.” He won election while demonstrating his freedom from the old party orthodoxies, calling out true conservatives such as “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz. But over time he has come to depend on congressional Republicans, and they have restrained him, preserving the GOP from full Trumpian revision. Last year’s tax bill cut taxes far more severely for corporations than for the typical American, leaving Trump to make a last minute pre-election promise of a middle-class follow-up. And Trump rechristened the senator from Texas as “Beautiful Ted.” There was no major infrastructure bill, no wall. The revisions to trade agreements have been gathering pace, but their effect will not be known for years. Trump has limited the possibility of the GOP becoming a party for “working families” by focusing almost exclusively on the trade needs of agricultural and Rust Belt whites, rather than on making work more rewarding for people of all races.

And so Republicans have this alarming dynamic where Trump is alienating suburban woman, college graduates, and young people generally, while congressional Republicans and their agenda are repelling the tranches of voters Trump brought into the party. The relationship between the the president and the Senate works for appointing judges. But Trump and the House Republicans could never square their contrary desires on health care with the wants of any group of voters, and so they abandoned the project.

At a zenith of power, this party is having an identity crisis. The congressional GOP and the traditional GOP donor class never wanted working-class whites or their agenda. Refusing to serve the voters you have is a recipe for disaster.

The Republican party needs a figure who can reconcile and unite its traditional voters with its Trumpian newer voters and expand from there. It doesn’t have that in Trump. It doesn’t have an innovative new House leader waiting in the wings to replace Paul Ryan, either. Until it finds that figure, expect the party to decline.

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