Where Else Do Establishment Republicans Have to Go?

By | 2017-11-30T09:16:49+00:00 November 29th, 2017|
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In a recent column, I advised conservatives and populists not to alienate less doctrinaire conservatives because they need their votes in general elections. A number of readers pointed out they have reason to be angry with “the establishment,” especially on matters like immigration and government spending. They have a great point.

Just as conservatives and populists need to avoid permanently alienating those to their left, establishment conservatives need to keep their friends to their right happy too. Like it or not, we are co-dependent in this relationship.

The Trump-Republican coalition is a tricky one to manage. It includes those derided “establishment” conservatives, fiscal or liberty conservatives, social conservatives, and non-conservative populists. Take one part of that quartet away and Democrats (often progressive Democrats) come out on top. Each group, therefore, has an interest in keeping the union intact.

Establishment conservatives, though, often seem to forget this. They think they can anger social or liberty conservatives without consequence because, as they often say, “where else do they have to go?” They might be right when it comes to the general election, as for most conservatives fear and hatred of the Left drives them to support even a very flawed nominee. But that is not true when it comes to party unity, as the last seven years demonstrates.

Alienation on the Right

This failure goes back for decades. The first President Bush angered liberty conservatives when he raised taxes despite saying that he would never do so (“read my lips”). His first pick for the Supreme Court, David Souter, quickly became an ally of the progressive wing, thereby infuriating social conservatives. His son learned from these lessons and made sure that he was solidly conservative on taxes and Court appointments, discounting the Harriet Miers misstep. But otherwise the liberty conservatives were treated much as they had been treated under Bush’s father.

In its effort to court the center, the Bush Administration often failed to offer much to the liberty-focused right beyond tax cuts. It focused on increasing spending in areas like education and Medicare. Rarely if ever was offsetting those increases with cuts elsewhere in the budget on the table. Thus, spending grew even with complete Republican control of the federal government from 2002-2006.

Bush’s desire to court the burgeoning Hispanic population also led to the failed efforts to reform immigration. Conservatives fearful of another Simpson-Mazzoli Act, the 1986 bill that was supposed to end illegal immigration via a compromise of amnesty and employer sanctions, rose up in opposition. That was enough to derail the Bush effort, but establishment Republicans since have done little to tailor their subsequent plans to address the conservative objections. As a result, immigration has exploded into a defining issue that separates the two parties, divides Republicans against themselves in race after race, and arguably is responsible for the Trump presidency.

Social conservatives fared better under Bush, but establishment conservatives elsewhere often flee their side when the going gets tough. The battle over the Indiana religious liberty law is a case in point. Despite the fact that social conservatives view such protections as essential in this day and age, as soon as pressure was brought to bear on Indiana businesses establishment Republicans caved, forcing the passage of a much-watered down version of the act to the dismay of social conservatives nationwide. Many large establishment GOP donors, like investor Paul Singer, also supported same-sex marriage in the days before the Obergefell decision. There’s a reason social conservatives have been the only party faction to oppose most Republican nominees during the primary process since the early 1990s.

Dissecting “the Autopsy”

The disdain and condescension establishment conservatives often feel for their more ideological cousins was on full display in the RNC analysis of the 2012 election debacle. Commonly known as “the autopsy,” the authors argued that many voters perceived the GOP was uncaring.

Rather than conclude, however, that maybe establishment GOP positions and priorities might have something to do with that perception, the authors cast sole blame on key priorities of both wings of the conservative movement. The party, the autopsy argued, needed to be open to immigration reform and same-sex marriage in order to attract Millennials and Hispanics. What movement conservatives would get from such an arrangement was strangely, but predictably, overlooked.

The manifest poverty of the autopsy’s argument was on full display in that painful debacle known as the Jeb Bush candidacy. Despite $100 million and the tacit support of much of the party’s elite operatives, donors, and officials, Bush flopped miserably in the primaries. Movement conservatives hated him, as poll after poll showed, but what was telling was that the voting constituency for establishment Republicans—the “somewhat conservative” voter—abandoned him too. Indeed, they preferred Mr. “Build the Wall,” Donald J. Trump.

Jeb Bush had once said he was willing to lose the primary to win the general, which was interpreted to mean that he would not veer right as that would cost him the presidency. Instead, he was humiliated, shown to be the head of a tribe of chiefs with no indians, and the man who trounced him did so by rejecting,  ostentatiously, the autopsy’s path. Trump’s victory was due in no small part to precisely that rejection, as only such a rejection could have procured the overwhelming support he obtained among the voters he needed to win, the blue-collar populist white voters who dominate the Midwest.

Where Will the Establishment Go?

Have establishment conservatives learned anything? If they want to remain important players in a Republican party that governs, they have to find ways to end the civil war that divides all types of conservatives and weakens them, often fatally, before they can even face the Democrats. That means they need to think of movement conservatives and populists as potential coalition partners rather than as what many movement voters perceive as marks in a big con game. And ending that perception means thinking about what deals they can strike that would make these people satisfied that they are not being taken for a ride.

The alternative for establishment GOP voters is not bright. While many might feel more culturally comfortable in a Clinton-led Democratic coalition, it is hard to see what they might get out of such an arrangement. The Democrats are going through their own Tea Party moment, with progressives who have been angry at Clinton triangulation and moderation for over twenty years bent on “resistance” and a move to the left. Joining that party might give establishment Republicans the trade and immigration deals they prefer, but in exchange for sharply higher taxes on the well-to-do and greater regulation of business and private activity. That’s a pretty high price to pay just so you can enjoy your company at party social gatherings.

The better course for the establishment is to stop the unnecessary bloodshed. The Trump presidency offers a unique opportunity for all sides in this debilitating battle to come to grips with their situations and work together. Trump’s very ideological amorphousness is a plus in this cause, as it allows him (and those in his administration who share this goal) to play the honest broker. It would place him in the role he plays best, dealmaker, and it would allow him to create something that none of his rivals have come close to building, a dominant party of the center-right that holds sway for a decade or more. But such an endeavor can work only if the potential partners all accept the invitation in good faith, and that decision must come from them and them alone.

For that to happen, all party factions must recognize that each is a minority of the country, and that they gain strength by uniting together rather than by pretending that they represent something greater on their own. Whether they realize this in time is perhaps the great challenge of this presidency.


About the Author:

Henry Olsen
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).