The shouting match that passed for a presidential debate on Saturday cannot have inspired much confidence in the Republican Party’s ability to regroup in time for November’s election.
Seldom has a televised debate been so rancorous. Candidates openly accused each other of lying. The crowd cheered and booed. Donald Trump, the property tycoon who won the New Hampshire primary last week, not only repudiated the foreign policy misadventures of the last Republican administration; he took umbrage at the suggestion that George W. Bush — whose brother, Jeb, is running for president this year — at least kept Americans safe from terror.
“The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush,” the New York businessman said. “He kept us safe? That is not safe.”
The Atlantic‘s David Frum compares the event to a horrible Thanksgiving where “one too many bottles of wine is opened and the family members begin shouting what they really think of each other.”
Don’t mention the war
For the last decade and a half, Republicans have stifled internal debates about the George W. Bush presidency, Frum argues.
They have preserved a more or less common front, by the more or less agreed upon device of not looking backward, not talking candidly and focusing all their accumulated anger on the figure of Obama.
Trump’s candidacy has smashed those coping mechanisms.
Everything that was suppressed has been exposed, everything that went unsaid is being shouted aloud — and all before a jeering live audience as angry itself as any of the angry men on the platform.
Glenn Thrush similarly argues at Politico that part of the Republican base has been irreconcilably estranged from the party “establishment” in the years since Bush left office.
The conservative rage now channeled by Trump is aimed at Barack Obama and the Clintons, but it burns on account of Bush and it has exploded in South Carolina, site of W.’s scorched earth win over John McCain in ’00.
Frum wonders if this is still a functioning political party. “Or is it one more — most spectacular — show of self-evisceration by a party that has been bleeding on the inside for a decade and longer?”
Perhaps it is both.
Daniel Berman, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, has argued that parties typically need to go through three election cycles to recover from a defeat.
The initial loss is written up to bad luck. This is what Republicans did in 2008. Given George W. Bush’s unpopularity at the time and John McCain’s disastrous choice for vice president, few Republicans could have been surprised they lost.
The second defeat “is usually written up to the candidates, either the unusual strength of the incumbent or the flawed nature of their opponent.” Both rationalizations were deployed in 2012.
It’s only after losing a third time, according to Berman, that parties recognize something else is going on.
It took Britain’s Labour Party three defeats between 1979 and 1987 for it to admit it had veered too far to the left — and then one more defeat, in 1992, before it choose a leader who could appeal to voters in the middle.
Democrats in the United States similarly had to lose three presidential elections between 1980 and 1988 before they recognized that they too needed to reinvent themselves as a more centrist party.
The Republican Party is in the middle of a similar realization. It has yet to come to terms with the failures of the last Republican administration — but it is now starting to and that is a painful process.
Some Republicans are ready to move on, as we have reported.
The party as a whole is sticking with what worked in the past: a militaristic foreign policy, reactionary social views and tax cuts. But a few Republicans see that the country has changed.
As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a conservative commentator, has argued, crime, inflation, high tax rates and welfare reform were the concerns of the middle class in the 1980s. They no longer are — “because Republicans fixed many of them.”
He could have said much the same for the culture-war issues of the 1990s that now do little more than scare away reasonable Americans in the center. Promising to reverse gay marriage no longer endears Republicans to swing voters.
The middle class today cares about job security, stagnant wages, rising health-care costs and increasingly unaffordable higher education.
Marco Rubio, a senator, seems to recognize as much. He kicked off his presidential candidacy talking about conservative solutions for the twenty-first century. So does Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, who champions education reform to restore social mobility. Both are also comfortable with America’s changing demographics and social views unlike the nativist wing of the party that is rallying around Trump.
Yet neither has learned much from George W. Bush’s wars. Jeb and Rubio are also the two most hawkish candidates, describing the threat of Islamic terrorism in apocalyptic terms and minute defense cuts as “gutting” the military.
It’s starting to look like Berman was right: Republicans need to go through another defeat before they can come to their senses.