Step #4: Embrace the Wilderness

I have said elsewhere that radicalization of a portion of the Republican base has created a de facto reactionary party within the shell of what once was a center-right conservative party. The differences between reactionaries and conservatives are profound and explain why there is no common ground between them. Conservatives temperamentally and doctrinally seek to put the brakes on government. Reactionaries want to shut it down or destroy it. Conservatives can play a role in left-leaning party systems by engaging in debate with left or center-left parties and slowing them down. Reactionaries can never engage. They have no room for anyone who would espouse a positive role for government.

For the past several years, Republicans have attempted to assert themselves as a majority or governing party while succumbing repeatedly to the wishes of their radicalized constituencies. We know how this has worked out. But once they relinquish their electoral prospects, jettison the base and tone down the rhetoric, Republicans will be free to settle into the unfamiliar role of being a functioning opposition party. Therefore:

The fourth of the five steps is for Republican leaders to embrace the wilderness and come to terms with being a party of loyal opposition.

This, too, will be an excruciating choice for a once-proud party which sees itself as the natural majority force in American politics, and whose dominance of the federal legislature and a majority of states gives the false appearance of majority status. The rot at the top of the ticket is a more accurate indicator of what’s happening inside. Like a baseball team with aging stars and a depleted farm system, Republicans will need to accept the prospect of a string of rebuilding seasons before they can compete again. These will be seasons of drudgery but the team cannot compete in its present condition and will only postpone the inevitable if it tries.

For decades, Republicans experienced winning seasons with a functioning coalition. Today, Republicans cling to the memory of Ronald Reagan as though the mention of his name can cure all ills. The Republican debates this year were filled with hagiographic references to Reagan. But 1988 was 28 years ago and 1980 was 36 years ago. Anyone under 40 has at best childhood memories of the Reagan administration, and Reagan himself would barely recognize his party, which has been unable to build a new national governing coalition around a radicalized base that would dismiss Reagan himself as too squishy and quick to compromise with liberals. The Reagan coalition was already strained under the weight of the profligate spending and neocon adventurism of the Bush years, but when Republicans assumed an obstructionist posture following Obama’s election it entered the realm of the dysfunctional.

Since 2009, the party has been guided by a cynical strategy to obstruct and delegitimize Barack Obama on the expectation that he could never reassemble the coalition that elected him. This was the Republican plan: to give nothing, reject the administration’s right to govern, blame Obama for the ensuing dysfunction, declare him a failure, and campaign on fixing the mess they largely created. Republicans believed they were still the natural majority party in a fundamentally center-right country, and that a one-time mix of Bush fatigue, war fatigue and economic free-fall conspired to elect Obama in 08.

When this premise proved incorrect, party leaders called for a course correction. But they couldn’t pull it off, because their efforts to obstruct and delegitimize had worked too well, at least with the base. In hindsight, the decision to obstruct made possible the subsequent radicalization of the base because it normalized anti-government reactionary behavior. This was a critical mistake. It precluded Republicans from having a real chance to compete for the White House in 2012, foreshadowed the rise of Donald Trump, and cost the party eight years when they could have been rebuilding their brand.

So eight years later, Republicans are no closer to having a national majority or being a governing party. Imagine where things might be now had those eight years been put to good use, opposing Obama philosophically but working with him where there was opportunity while taking time in the wilderness to regroup, to figure out where conservative ideas fit in a 21st century world. In this counterfactual world, Republicans no doubt would have been less successful down ballot, but there would also be no Donald Trump. Kevin McCarthy, the incumbent House Majority Leader, reportedly said on inauguration eve 2009 that “if you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority.” A more insightful reading of the situation would have been that the voters just put you in the minority, and they did it for a reason. Take some time there and figure out why. Instead, Republicans thought they saw a quick way back without recognizing the deferred costs of confronting rather than considering the broader electorate.

The bill is now coming due in the form of Donald Trump and the threat he poses to the party’s future. Having lost eight rebuilding years to a strategy of obstruction, Republicans are on the verge of losing four more. The longer they delay their time in the wilderness, the longer they delay their comeback. You need look no further than the demise of the New Deal coalition to see how long the renewal process can take. With the exception of the anomalous 1976 Watergate election, it took Democrats 24 years after Humphrey’s 1968 loss to figure out how to keep Republicans out of the White House. Much of that time was spent watching coalition partners battle each other while party leaders tinkered with the nomination rules to advance candidates who wouldn’t be rejected outright by the public, only to see those candidates go down to defeats of historic proportions. It took years for Democrats to figure out the electorate no longer wanted what they were selling, longer still to figure out a corrective.

Republicans should start this process now. And the most emphatic and productive way to start is by clearly and unequivocally repudiating their standard bearer. That is excruciating step #5.