Rethinking Republicanism One Issue at a Time
After steadily losing voters to Donald Trump for eight months, the Republican Establishment, with Mitt Romney in the lead, is hitting back. "He's playing the public for suckers," the 2012 Republican nominee warned on Thursday. "His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe."
But no matter how many party elders pile on, or how often Trump dissembles in debates, as he did Thursday night, he keeps winning: Trump has taken 10 of 15 early state contests and recent polls show 49 percent of Republican voters back him.
Let's face it, the Republican elite has lost control of the agenda. How can the party win back its rank and file? Should it be rethinking its bedrock policies: tax cuts, Obamacare repeal, free trade, limited government?
Charles Murray, the social scientist and longtime American Enterprise Institute scholar, has some ideas. "All this focus by Republicans on tax cuts has been wrong-headed," he said in an interview. Tax cuts, of course, have been received Republican wisdom for more than 30 years.
Murray also doubts that the Republican obsession with repealing Obamacare "is close to the top of the priorities of people expressing their anger through Trump."
Republicans, he said, should improve the earned-income tax credit -- tax refunds to supplement the income of low wage-earners, even if they pay no taxes. Wage insurance, which supplements the income of laid-off workers who make less money in a new job, is in the ballpark, too. In a coming book he will advocate replacing the entire income-transfer system with a guaranteed basic income for all.
Such ideas are heresy among congressional Republicans and inside most conservative think tanks. But polls show these kinds of solutions are in line with the views of white, non-college-educated and culturally conservative Trump supporters.
Those voters aren't all that ideological. They aren't clamoring for yet more tax cuts, since their taxes are pretty low already. With few investments to their name, a capital-gains break isn't going to help pay the rent. The same goes for a reduction in the estate tax; only in their dreams do these voters' estates exceed the $5.45 million now excluded from taxation.
Many Trump supporters seem to have big health-care expenses. Thus they aren't crying out for lawmakers to repeal Obamacare; nor is the defunding of Planned Parenthood high on their must-have list.
Seen through his base, Trump's anti-immigrant, anti-free-trade views are logical. These Americans haven't seen real wages go up since the 1970s. The factories that once employed them were unable to compete with cheaper labor in China and Mexico and have shipped out. Hispanic immigrants have replaced them in construction jobs. "To top it off, the party they have voted for in recent decades, the Republicans, hasn’t done a damn thing to help them," Murray wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in February that analyzed the long-building disaffection. "Who wouldn’t be angry?"
The split between the GOP and many of its voters came through clearly in Virginia on Super Tuesday. Trump won the state overall with 35 percent of the vote, his victory secured by support in a couple dozen smaller cities and rural counties where the median income is less than $45,000, according to calculations by Bloomberg's Greg Giroux.
Marco Rubio, the Establishment choice after Jeb Bush left the race, came in a close second with 32 percent. But almost all of Rubio's support was in higher-income areas, especially wealthy Northern Virginia, where the Republican elite -- lobbyists, trade-group leaders, party officials, think-tank denizens, political consultants -- hang their hats.
The Republican Party of today has promoted the interests of that policy machinery, which gets its funding from the same donor class that finances Republican office-seekers, who then pass laws that protect their donors' interests.
For Trump, the effete Republican elite was a ripe and deserving target. But to expose it he has manipulated racial and ethnic animosities. As Paul Campos, a University of Colorado law professor, writes: "That it took a shameless, foul-mouthed egomaniacal reality TV star to speak this truth in such a way that Republican voters would hear it is a sad comment on the state of our politics and culture."
That's the sentiment Romney was trying to express in his speech. It may be too late.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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