Before Sidney Blumenthal was a Clinton goon, he was an acute friendly critic of the Democratic Party (though a worthless analyst of Reagan.) His 1984 postmortem of the Mondale campaign holds some important lessons for conservatives. Reverse the parties and substitute “Roosevelt” for “Reagan”, and “Jeb Bush” for “Mondale.” It works even better if you substitute the names of all the establishment Republican candidates for Mondale. Blumenthal wrote:
But he [Mondale] was forced by repeated upsets to notice that bonds had been loosened and energy was dissipating – the definition of physical entropy. Mondale could feel that these bonds were weaker in his own relationship with the Democratic electorate… He acted as if brandishing these symbols [of the past] would restore the great days. Yet the candidate of entropy could not offer gifts great enough to make the coalition strong again…
… Roosevelt’s power flowed from the social debts he was owed. He seemed to be a figure of almost mystical dimension because tens of millions felt that his indispensable leadership had transformed their estates and status.
Trump and Carson won’t be president, but their successes are a sign that the bonds holding together the center-right political coalition are loosening. Trump is a grotesque who obviously does not believe a single thing that he says, and yet he is simultaneously drawing support from both the most belligerently orthodox segment of the party (the most ornery, talk radio-listening fraction of tea partiers) and from the most ideologically idiosyncratic segment of the Republican electorate (working-class, white moderates.) Both groups (who have very little in common) are willing to overlook Trump’s flaws because they share the (correct) belief that the establishment candidates despise them as (respectively) cranks and losers.
I think that Jeb Bush is basically a good guy, and he is mostly a conviction politician on everything from taxes, to abortion, to immigration. Many of Bush’s donor and consultant allies are more cynical and roll their eyes at his social conservatism, but my sense is that Bush is using them at least as much as they are using him.
Bush’s weakness isn’t about the Bush brand, or even the Jeb Bush brand. It is that Bush’ speeches about how he cut taxes and spending in Florida are disconnected from people’s lives. Kasich and Christie are giving the same tax cutting and spending cutting speeches and they are facing the same public indifference.
That doesn’t mean that Republicans need to become the party of higher taxes and higher spending. It does mean that much of their electorate no longer equates talk of lower taxes and lower spending as a credible promise of higher living standards. The social bonds of that rhetoric were formed in the 1980s and 1990s. Those bonds have been loosened even within the Republican coalition. Those social bonds never existed for those younger voters outside of the coalition. Those voters don’t owe any social debts to Reagan or any other Republican.
Serious Republican candidates need to start over and explain how their taxes will mean larger paychecks for someone other than business owners and managers. They need to explain how conservative health care reform will mean more secure and affordable health insurance for wage-earners. They need to stop assuming that Reagan-era rhetoric about the budget and peace thought strength will get their voters to swallow an immigration agenda crafted at a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce and the Obama administration.
One last selection. Substitute Bush for Mondale and 2015 for 1984:
Mondale’s candidacy was a barely sustainable rationalization of the position of the Washington establishment throughout 1984. Among the truths of the campaign is that the party lords do not have the keys to the kingdom. But even with Mondale’s defeat, they retain a unique power: the power to destroy any presidential candidacy they wholeheartedly endorse.
This doesn’t have to be a prophecy. If the Republican establishment has any sense, they will take it as a warning and learn to speak to the concerns of the voters.