Having spent months badly underestimating Donald Trump and the level of havoc he could wreak on the GOP nominating process, pundits are now swinging too far in the other direction — overstating the significance of the havoc, underrating the fundamentally solid position of the Republican Party, and drawing excessively broad conclusions about the ideological shape of the new more diverse America whose emergence is fueling Trumpism.
This was perhaps best illustrated by a paired set of Atlantic cover stories, David Frum on "The Great Republican Revolt" against the party's donor class and Peter Beinart's "Why America is Moving Left," that together dominated Christmas-season political chatter but paint a misleading picture of a conservative movement in crisis.
The basic truth is this: Whatever the merits of orthodox American conservative economic policy (I am skeptical, personally) the reason its proponents are pushing the envelope so hard is pretty clear — the strategy is working fairly well and the odds of it achieving massive political success are decent.
Frum paints a highly entertaining and largely accurate portrait of the internal dynamics that have fueled Trumpism but is fundamentally too skeptical that the non-Trump faction's strategy will succeed in the end on its own terms. Beinart's thesis about a boom-time for American liberalism contains important elements of truth, but also skirts far too much of the core center of what American political conflict is about.
Both articles severely understate the possibility that one year from today we may well be looking at a President-Elect Rubio (or Bush or Christie or Cruz) backed by congressional majorities and downballot dominance not seen since the depths of the Great Depression. The kind of solid wall of Republicanism that may well take office in 2017 would be unlikely to endure very long, but it would be empowered to enact sweeping changes in American public policy that would make all of this winter's liberal smugness look absurd.
Republicans are in much better shape than Democrats at all levels
The current state of partisan balance comes down to a simple question of odds. Grant the premise that due to the vagaries of this year's out-of-control primary context Hillary Clinton is more likely than not to prevail in November 2016. How good are her odds, really? 55 percent? 65 percent? Surely not much better than that.
Conversely, Democrats' odds of capturing a majority in the House of Representatives are minuscule — House Democrats aren't even pretending to believe they can pull this off. Even a genuinely disastrous election for GOP at the top of the ticket wouldn't turn this situation around, since the median House district leans Republican and if it becomes obvious that Clinton is going to win that gives center-right voters more incentive than ever to keep Congress in Republican hands to check her.
And Democrats' odds of meaningfully altering the balance of power in state government are effectively zero. They stand a very healthy chance of winning the governor's mansion in North Carolina and maybe state senates in New York and Washington. But there simply aren't that many statewide offices on the ballot in 2016 and the party hasn't done the kind of massive fundraising and organizing infrastructure that would meaningfully alter the outlook in deep downballot races for state legislatures.
When I wrote in October that many Democrats are in a state of deep denial about the hole that they are in, many critics characterized me as arguing that "Democrats are doomed" and countered that in the long term rough partisan balance is likely. True as that may be, in the short term the partisan balance is sharply skewed toward the GOP. Just consider Philip Klincker's counterpoint to my piece, in which he concludes that "there's nothing wrong with the Democrats that losing the presidency probably won't fix." This may be true, but it captures the skew perfectly. What Republicans need to win the White House is a decent nominee and/or some good luck. What Democrats need to revive their fortunes downballot is to lose the White House first.
Republicans aren't getting more liberal
Beinart's argument is more ideological than partisan, focused on the idea that American politics as a whole is shifting to the left. But far and away the most persuasive elements of the article are those dedicated to cataloguing the ways in which the Democratic Party has moved to the left as part of the ongoing process of polarization in the United States. This is all correct, though he understates the degree to which it's a symptom of Democratic weakness rather than of progressive strength. If Democrats held as many statewide offices in places like North Carolina and Georgia as Republicans do in places like Illinois and Maryland, then centrist Democrats would be more visible and carry more weight.
But the crux of his argument is that "any Republican capable of winning the presidency in 2016 would govern to the left of George W. Bush."
There is simply no evidence of this. Beinart cites Rubio's closeness to "reformocon" intellectuals and the left-leaning views of Millennials as grounds for his hypothesis. But one of the most robust findings in political science is that presidents try to implement their campaign promises and Rubio is promising a regressive $11.8 trillion tax cut that's about four times the size of Bush's tax cuts. Rubio favors Medicare privatization and block-granting of Medicaid, both of which are orthodox Republican Party policies that would enjoy broad support in Congress.
Public opinion is drifting modestly to the right
One good way to capture the disconnect between the Beinart and Frum theses is to look at a metric known as the "policy mood," an indicator developed by James Stinson and continued in collaboration with K. Elizabeth Coggins that aggregates a huge range of commercial and academic polling to produce an overall gauge of the public's liberalism or conservatism.
Here's what they find:
The story here is that public opinion is broadly "thermostatic." Sentiment had shifted strongly to the right before Ronald Reagan's election, but the longer the conservative icon remained in offie the more the public swung left. Conversely, the Obama presidency has been associated with a bunch of high-profile liberal policymaking that the public senses has perhaps gone too far.
This backlash to Obama-ism isn't unusual or unprecedented in scale. But its interaction with the Democratic collapse in state government leads to some unfortunate consequences for liberals. The presence of so many Republican governors and state legislatures means that the overall trajectory of American public policy during the Obama years simply hasn't been all that left-wing — things like the Affordable Care Act and Obama's historic carbon control rules have been partially offset by anti-union legislation, regressive state tax reforms, and serious cutbacks in education spending. But public perceptions of politics are dominated by the presidency, so the mood has swung right in reaction to Obama just as it would have had the Democratic Party in general been more successful in the Obama years.
2016 is a historic opportunity for the GOP
The right way to read the Republican establishment's anxiety over the state of the presidential nominating campaign is less as a looming crisis and more as angst over a potential lost opportunity.
A Republican president elected in 2016 would give the party a historically unusual dominance of consolidated control over the levers of American government at all levels. Obtaining this level of control is unusual in large part because it's difficult, and under any circumstances winning the 2016 presidential election would be a hard. Hard, but eminently obtainable as long as the Republican Party nominated one of its literally dozens of generically qualified statewide officeholders with generically conservative policy views. The fact that they might get saddled with Trump or Ted Cruz and end up throwing the opportunity away is maddening. But a party facing the possibility of partially throwing away a big advantage is still a party that has a big advantage.
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