The Corner

Politics & Policy

F. H. Buckley Looks Back at 2016

F. H. Buckley draws on recent work by Lee Drutman to make some important points about the 2016 election. Drutman divides the voters into four quadrants based on their conservatism or liberalism on economic and social issues. Buckley points out that President Trump won the election with a coalition of conservatives (that is voters who are conservative on both economic and social issues) and populists (voters who are socially conservative and economically liberal). Too many Republicans, he argues, have considered social conservatism a political liability and economic conservatism a political asset. The truth is closer to the reverse.

Buckley is singing from my hymnal on all of these points, and so I while I agree with his main argument I was predisposed to do so. But I think that he overstates his case in one respect and understates it in another, in both cases by tying an argument about voters’ views on issues too closely to the person of Donald Trump.

The overstatement is that only President Trump could have won the election for the Republicans, since the other Republicans were too economically conservative. But you don’t need Drutman’s detailed breakdown of segments of the electorate to see that views to the right of Trump’s on economics do not doom Republican candidates. You need only observe that in such crucial states as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Republicans who hold such views outperformed Trump. (Ron Johnson even endorsed the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the closing weeks of the campaign.)

The understatement is that President Trump’s mix of positions probably would have done much better if embodied in a different candidate. The 2016 campaign, that is, makes Buckley’s argument about the strength of social conservatism combined with economic moderation look weaker than it is. Hypothesize a general-election candidate who says free-trade deals have ruined the heartland, vows to protect entitlements, and pledges to nominate conservative justices, but who also had experience in government, had no Access Hollywood tape, no attacks on Gold Star families, and so forth. (Or, if you prefer, choose issues other than trade on which the candidate could signal that he was not a stereotypical economic conservative.)

That candidate would almost certainly have gotten more than Trump’s 46 percent of the vote. He would have probably gotten more than Mitt Romney’s 47 percent, too.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.