Last weekend, I promised that, once back in Philadelphia, I would offer some unconventional thoughts about how the Republican Party can survive the Trump phenomenon and position itself to compete with 21st century voters. My proposal cuts against the short-term thinking that drives the political process. It involves making five excruciatingly difficult choices that run counter to how parties are built to act, which is why I don’t think anything like it will be considered by the political class. Still, I offer it as a serious and good faith recommendation to enable Republicans to reverse the significant damage they have done to their ability to function as a national party over the past seven-plus years.
Think of it as a five step program for a party that badly needs to wean itself off a lethal addiction to its base.
The argument is long but it ends with Republican leaders repudiating Trump’s candidacy and doing it now, when it can still make a difference. This will most certainly cause vast electoral damage in the short run, but it will avoid even more brutal choices in the long run and it has the virtue of being the right thing to do when faced with nominating someone who many Republicans have acknowledged is not qualified to hold the office he seeks.
The first of the five steps is for Republicans to make peace with the idea that sometimes the best outcome of an election is to lose.
Donald Trump has put the Republican Party in a bigger bind than its leaders may realize. They understand the risk he poses to their ability to win the election if he is unable to find a way to appeal to a multicultural, multigenerational electorate that looks nothing like Republican primary voters. And they are fully cognizant of what that could mean to their Senate and even their House majority should the worst happen. But they have probably not thought through what it would mean for them if he won. Is a Republican congress really going to permit him to build a wall along the Rio Grande? Engage in mass deportations? Ban Muslims from the country?
OK, so even if it isn’t too much of a stretch for you to imagine that they would, Trump still could not satisfy his core supporters because through his unrealistic proposals he is really promising to reverse the demography behind the Obama coalition, to return the country to a time when white voters really could decide elections. This is the same implicit promise Republican leaders have been making to their base for years, the same unfulfilled promise that angered them to the point where they rallied behind Trump in the first place. No one can roll back the 21st century. To try would mean governing at the expense of the emerging electorate, while the inevitable failure would alienate Trump’s supporters like the Republican leadership already has. It’s a recipe for losing the entire country.
And this may be the best case scenario. A President Trump who governed like he has campaigned, saying whatever comes to his mind and responding aggressively to any perceived slight, courts catastrophe. Does the Republican Party want to be associated with this possibility? Do they want to take that risk?
There is no good outcome with Trump. If he wins, he will crush the Republican base because he will be unable to follow through on the intent behind his promises, and he will alienate the rest of the country. We already know what that looks like because it is at the root of congressional dysfunction, where “freedom caucus” members act out when they are prevented from shutting down the government or defaulting on the debt, the base gets angry, and everyone else turns away in disgust. How does this advance the cause of Republican regeneration?
It is highly likely that the voters will save Republicans from this nightmare by keeping Trump out of the White House. But if this is the best that awaits after November, why fight for it? Losing is always costly, but winning under these conditions will prove to be much worse. Political professionals will contend that it’s worth it to prevent Democrats from filling the Supreme Court vacancy and to protect Republican officeholders down ballot. I recognize that losing these advantages would be a high price to pay; that’s why it’s an excruciating choice. But I will argue in step four that these advantages may already be lost. And I will argue in step two that some of those down ballot seats should be lost as a necessary step toward healing the party.