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Why the Republican coalition was too weak to fend off Donald Trump

RNC chair Reince Priebus and Fox host Sean Hannity at the CPAC convention, NOT stopping Donald Trump.
RNC chair Reince Priebus and Fox host Sean Hannity at the CPAC convention, NOT stopping Donald Trump.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Donald Trump won the nomination because the Republican Party was too weak to resist him. This column tries to explain the weakness of the Republican Party coalition going into this election, which allowed Trump to defeat the GOP party elites.

By focusing on the weakness of the GOP I am disputing the claim that Trump won the GOP nomination because he is a super-skilled black swan. He has been around for a while but previously did not even dare to run for the GOP nomination. Indeed, he tried to run for the Reform Party nomination in 2000, but the Reform Party(!) was organized enough to stave him off. And there have been previous candidates with similarly xenophobic and ethnocentric messages: Pat Buchanan (1992, 1996), Tom Tancredo (2008).

Instead, my argument focuses on the Republican Party's policy coalition, but with the expectation that there is a close relationship between the policy positions a party tends to support and the organized groups and activists that compose the party coalition. Voters, in this account, are not part of the party, but over time their loyalties will vary with the policy positions and actions of a party. I assume that a party that shares a set of internally consistent and marketable policy goals will be more likely to cooperate to achieve those goals.

This account is a working hypothesis — my best guess of how the world works. I welcome criticism and suggestions for how to measure the strength of a coalition.

The Reagan coalition: a quick history

We commonly use the term "conservative" to describe a set of policies that are actually diverse. The Reagan coalition of 19801 combined 1) libertarian small-government conservatives, 2) defense hawks of the 1964 Goldwater movement, 3) budget-balancing conservatives, 4) tax-cutting conservatives, and 5) social conservatives and evangelicals.

Phyllis Schlafly provides a quick overview in her 2010 CPAC speech (starting at 5:10).

There was plenty of room for overlap between the different strands of conservatism — child tax credits, for instance, satisfied both the demand for tax cuts and "pro-family" policies — but also tensions between the diverse priorities of conservative activists.

There are several reasons this coalition struggles to cooperate. Here are four critical ones:

  1. The failure of Reaganomics. Two full cycles of tax cuts, defense spending, and deregulation have led to two cycles of staggering budget deficits, financial crises, and environmental disasters. At this point, it is hard for a presidential candidate to propose the same policies and predict different results with a straight face.
  2. In particular, the failure of supply-side economicsthe notion that tax cuts will "pay for themselves" due to additional tax revenue on unleashed economic activity — accentuated the tensions within the party. It is impossible to simultaneously cut taxes, increase defense spending, maintain social spending (to keep evangelicals and senior citizens happy), and balance the national budget. Like quintuplets sharing a single blanket on a winter night, the conservative factions cannot all be satisfied simultaneously.
  3. Social conservatives were never a comfortable fit with the rest of the Goldwater coalition, which sought to decrease federal influence in various ways.
  4. In hindsight, trade agreements — often passed with Democratic help — are also a liability for the GOP agenda, as many Trump coalition profiles have stressed. Trump himself highlights opposition to free trade and punitive tariffs as key differences between his agenda and conservative orthodoxy.
  5. George W. Bush pushed the Reagan coalition too far. While the Bush administration enacted many items on the conservative wish list, it also proposed measures that were supposed to grow the party but ended up highlighting internal divisions: Medicare drugs (2003) and immigration reform (2005-'06). The former was a bald effort to buy voters without offsetting cuts or reforms in the program. The latter began a decade-long struggle between the pro-immigration business and party strategy wings of the party and the xenophobic wing of the party. The 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bill was also considered a major deviation from conservative free market principles, as it used taxpayer funds to shore up businesses rather than allow market forces to punish bad decisions.

The Tea Party movement

On the surface, many of the Tea Party protesters were focused on opposing President Obama, Democrats, and their agenda. Theda Skocpol writes:

At least half of all GOP voters sympathize with this Tea Party upsurge. They are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative-minded men and women who fear that "their country" is about to be lost to mass immigration and new extensions of taxpayer-funded social programs (like the Affordable Care Act) for low- and moderate-income working-aged people, many of whom are black or brown.

Yet it was also a movement against the Bush era and its apostasies. Two examples:

  • When Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) addressed the 2010 Utah Republican convention, some of the activists were chanting, "TARP! TARP!" Soon after, Bennett lost his renomination bid when he came in third place in the party nomination contest.
  • After Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost his primary election to Dave Brat in 2014, the hot take was that his support for immigration reform cost him his job. Brat's message, however, was much broader: Brat argued that Cantor had betrayed conservative principles on behalf of corporate interests across a range of issues — tax reform, the Export-Import Bank, the housing crisis, the farm bill, etc.

While there were many amateur Tea Party activists, the movement was supported by the Koch brothers' preexisting infrastructure, and the Koch organization sought to co-opt the movement to emphasize its budget-balancing, small-government message. Skocpol notes, however, that this was a distortion of the actual activists' views:

Fiscal conservatism is often said to be the top grassroots Tea Party priority, but Williamson and I did not find this to be true. Crackdowns on immigrants, fierce opposition to Democrats, and cuts in spending for the young were the overriding priorities we heard from volunteer Tea Partiers, who are often, themselves, collecting costly Social Security, Medicare, and veterans benefits to which they feel fully entitled...

Notably, neither the genuine activists nor the Koch network message put much emphasis on the social issues that motivate evangelical voters.

And what has the Tea Party movement wrought? Obviously, the central theme is distrust of establishment Republicans associated with the Bush administration or guilty of cooperation with the Obama administration. The nomination of Donald Trump is just the latest event in a series starting with the 2010 primaries, continuing with the 2011 debt crisis and 2013 government shutdown, and leading to the deposition of a sitting speaker of the House. The GOP civil war has been raging for eight years now; Trump is just the next phase.

The 2016 cycle

At the start of the 2016 presidential cycle, would we consider the GOP leadership to be strong or weak? The Party Decides offers some guidance:

[Insider] control rests on their ability to reach early agreement on whom to support and to exploit two kinds of advantage--control of campaign resources (money, knowledge, labor) and the persuasive power of a united front of inside players. (7)

What would a strong party look like?

A strong party to identify and get agreement on a nominee who is arguably the party's best choice even though that candidate may not be any important group's first choice... (84)

And what would a weak party — a party in transition with incompatible coalition policy demands — look like?

[G]roup demands and the relative power of groups are never completely constant, and sometimes they undergo rapid and major change. If...the essential concerns have come into conflict, it may be impossible to find a presidential candidate who satisfies everyone.

Even without Trump, the Republican Party was reeling in 2015. There were a dozen candidates (eventually 18) and angry anti-establishment voters, and their best nominee was ... Jeb Bush? It's hard to imagine an insider candidate less prepared to heal the rifts in the party.

The deregulation of campaign finance begun by Citizens United did not just make it easier for wealthy donors to influence elections; it also decentralized the campaign finance system so individual donors could bankroll their favorite candidates without having to coordinate with one another. This weakened the collective power of party insiders: They could not shut down a candidate by refusing funds unless a) this decision was unanimous, and b) the candidate had no personal wealth to fall back on.

Nor did party insiders coordinate their endorsements on a single best candidate. Jeb did lead the endorsement race, but compared with previous cycles, few insiders made public endorsements.

It seems Republicans learned the wrong lesson from 2012. After watching Romney outlast a series of outsider candidates, insiders seem to have grown complacent about the ability of the insider favorite to survive more popular challengers. In hindsight, the lesson should have been that the party needed to unite behind someone who could channel the anger and fear of GOP voters into a positive policy agenda.

If Republican insiders were not reeling from six years of internal conflict and dulled by complacency, what would have happened to Trump's campaign? Again, there is nothing unique about Trump himself. He has been around since the 1980s, he lost his bid for the Reform Party in 2000, he has a vast number of disastrous flaws, and certainly he's not the first demagogue in our political system. A strong party would have:

  • Denounced his opening press conference as racist. Sure, the GOP has been trending anti-immigrant since 2006, but without asserting a vast Mexican conspiracy to undermine American.
  • Denounced Trump as a liberal playboy on his third wife with unacceptable policy views on a range of conservative litmus tests.
  • Picked one candidate and told the rest to go home. Instead, the GOP insiders are left trying to figure out where they went wrong.

This post is part of a Mischiefs of Faction series on the Republican Party. See the previous entry here.

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