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The Republican Party Can Get Even Worse

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Republicans are about to nominate a national leader who is spectacularly ill-suited either to heal the party's divisions or to expand its pinched demographic reach. With slippery reins in hand, Donald Trump -- not Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell or anyone named Bush -- is driving the team. No one knows for sure where it's headed.

In a fascinating interview with Joshua Green of Bloomberg Businessweek, Trump revealed that he has at least thought about a destination.

"Five, 10 years from now -- different party," Trump said. "You’re going to have a worker's party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry."

Trump obviously knows his people. Does he know his party?

The future of the GOP, with or without a Trump victory, is enormously sketchy. Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at both the Century Foundation and the Hillary-Clinton-friendly Center for American Progress, is an influential analyst of parties and constituencies. He is co-author, with John Judis, of the 2002 book, "The Emerging Democratic Majority," which more or less predicted the successful Obama coalition. I asked him whether a GOP focused on working-class concerns was in the offing, or perhaps some other configuration. By e-mail, he responded:

I agree that the logic of the GOP's coalition sends them in the direction of doing (economic) stuff for white working class voters, who are getting pretty restive. But what would that be? Besides maybe forgetting all their plans for "entitlement reform," I'm not sure there are a lot of great options for them that would actually fly within the party. There is too much ideological resistance to anything that looks like "liberal" economic policy.

Political scientist Norman Ornstein, who with colleague Thomas Mann sent early and adamant warnings about Republican decline, similarly sees a GOP boxed in by its current constituencies and ideological orthodoxies. 

Trump has exposed fault lines in the Republican Party between their longstanding orthodoxy and whatever constituency they have out there. The Tea Party base wants to blow up government but not embrace entitlement reform, a cause that unites Republican politicians and intellectuals.

Ornstein sees the party divided among Trumpist populists, conservative ideological purists aligned with Texas Senator Ted Cruz and the party establishment, embodied by House Speaker Paul Ryan. "The party establishment is the weakest of the three," he said in a telephone interview.

The GOP's internal gridlock exacerbates Ryan's challenges in the House. Republican control of Congress -- aided by digitally gerrymandered districts, urban packing of Democrats and a Senate that punishes densely populated (almost invariably blue) states -- is supposed to be the Republican ace in the hole. In practice, it's more like a coagulated swamp.

The Republican House majority continues to be completely dysfunctional, beholden to a band of anti-government zealots opposed to helping any Washington institution, including their own, to succeed. "I think this goes on for a significant period of time, with ever bigger challenges to governing," Ornstein said. "They're not going to be able to figure out an approach where they can govern."

Mike Murphy, who headed the super-PAC supporting Jeb Bush's campaign, also envisions the perpetuation of an unhealthy status quo. Before 2016, Murphy was widely deemed one of the smartest strategists in Republican politics. But according to the dictates of the idiot/genius dynamic that governs political consulting, Murphy hemorrhaged IQ points when his candidate, who was wildly, and somewhat intentionally, out of step with primary voters, failed. In an e-mail, Murphy wrote:

All I see is rubble and inter-party rage, details blurry. I’m hoping for show trials of these sad, foolish Vichy Republicans.

My wild guess is the old fault lines return: religious conservatives versus reform, non-grievance conservatives. Both sides, at least the smarter elements, will understand that a middle-class-friendly, upward-mobility empowering agenda is needed to ever win again. That vision, framed in reform and multi-cultural terms, is the right thing to fight over. Problem is, the Cruz squad will be back, arguing that Trump wasn’t a “real conservative” so we lost because he was too moderate, etc. Just a replay of their usual hokum.

I was hoping for Cruz over Trump, so when he lost it would be something that helped the party grow beyond his specious argument. Now it just looks like a long civil war.

The agony of the GOP, unfortunately, will continue to be foisted on the nation at large. Ornstein, who predicted Trump's success, also has a four-point prediction of the Republicans' agenda if Trump loses in November.

  • Delegitimize the president.
  • Delegitimize government.
  • Incite their base to anger.
  • Suppress the vote of the other side.

That's a familiar recipe. But a Republican opposition under President Hillary Clinton would likely be marked by weaker leadership (undermined by Trump's candidacy), a higher concentration of anti-government radicals (as more moderate Republicans lose seats) and a notable uptick in political desperation (as the White House appears increasingly beyond grasp). Republicans have already stooped to nominate Trump. The bar could go lower.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net