Elephantine decisions.

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Two Views From the Right, on Republicans of Tomorrow

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Bloomberg View columnists Ramesh Ponnuru and Megan McArdle discuss what they are hearing at the Republican convention in Cleveland and what it could mean for the future of the party.   

Ponnuru: Senator Ted Cruz is reportedly not going to endorse Donald Trump in his convention speech and is gearing up to run for president again himself in 2020. John Kasich, another non-endorser, is also considering a run. The shared assumption: There won’t be an incumbent Republican running four years from now.

It is a widely shared view. If it’s correct, what will Trump’s lasting influence on Republicans be? Some Republicans would want to write his nomination off as a fluke: The field was crowded; Trump was a celebrity who got an unprecedented amount of media attention. And Republicans are in a relatively optimistic mood at the moment about the congressional elections.

But I don’t think the party would just return to business as usual. I’ve been surprised by how many of the Republicans I’ve talked to here -- including anti-Trump Republicans -- think that the party has to rethink its commitment to free-trade agreements. “Trump has won that argument inside the party,” said one of them.

If that’s right, it’s fitting that the one holdout on the convention lineup, Senator Cruz, agrees with Trump that the Trans-Pacific Partnership should be killed.

Are you hearing the same things I’m hearing?

McArdle: Two moments stick out from the people I've talked to. The first is the Trump supporter, a political novice, who said that she initially liked Ted Cruz, until she heard about his vote for Trade Promotion Authority, at which point it was all over.  

TPA is exactly the sort of issue that voters almost never care about. It's a technical legislative matter, one step up from parliamentary procedure, and in normal times it's nearly impossible to get a normal voter to hold still long enough for you to explain what the initials mean. The fact that she dumped Cruz over a vote for TPA -- even though Cruz eventually turned on the deal -- tells you just how explosive an issue trade has become for ordinary voters.

The other conversation that sticks out is the suggestion I heard -- from someone who intensely dislikes Trump -- that Trump probably would have benefited from letting the delegates vote their consciences because he would have won overwhelmingly. The establishment knows it lost, badly. And it knows there will have to be a reckoning after November.

The question is what that reckoning looks like, and in part it's a question of how badly Trump loses. If Trump loses by a percentage point or less, then his supporters can plausibly tell themselves that they were done in by insufficient support by the establishment.

But if Trump is utterly crushed, that argument starts to look a lot less plausible. I'm not saying no one will make it. Trump's supporters among my readership are already clearly setting themselves up psychologically for the "stab in the back" excuse. But if Trump loses badly, they will no longer be able to tell themselves that there's a silent majority out there which agrees with them.

One other thing to think about is what effect this has on the Republican base. In the past few days I have heard from three different longtime Republicans, in three different states, that they had switched their party registration from "Republican" to "no party." That's a major psychological step, and it can be the first step on the road to voting for the other party.

If those folks don't come back, then post-Trump the Republican Party will be a different party, simply because the base it caters to will be more Trump, less educated professional. It is an open question whether this catering will make the party more or less appealing to general-election voters.

What might that party look like? Obviously more anti-trade. In a normal time, I'd say that risks alienating donors, but Democrats are obviously moving in the same direction, possibly even faster. The cause of freer trade was mortally wounded by the collapse of the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization talks in 2003. Recent events suggest we are now hearing its last, dying gasps.

I'm less clear, however, on the rest of what a post-Trump policy platform will look like. So much of Trump's appeal rests not in his ideas but in the man himself. I will presume that the man himself will not be running again in 2020, when he will be 73.

He has also built no organization to speak of. No one is desperate to get hold of his political machine. So other than trade and immigration -- an issue that the Republican Party had already capitulated on years ago -- what are their issues? Who are the key Trump people who end up powering things behind the scenes?

If the party gets off by shifting on trade and immigration, this will not be my policy preference, but I'll still think the party got off relatively cheaply. 

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

To contact the authors of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

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