Bruce Bartlett, Opinion contributor
Published 5:00 a.m. ET Aug. 23, 2020
History suggests Republicans may have to lose five presidential elections in a row before the forces of moderation, revisionism and pragmatism prevail.
Some years ago I predicted that those who would lead the Republican Party back to sanity would be the political consultants, because they would see that the GOP was on a path to defeat, and victory was all they cared about. The nature of their work forces them to be clear-eyed and data-driven.
That the consultant class nearly always stays in its partisan lane is mostly because clients insist upon it, not trusting those who work for the other side. Also, over time, consultants acquire specific knowledge about the nature of each party's constituency that helps them, especially in primary races. But at their core, the consultants must be non-ideological to be effective. They can't allow their personal policy preferences to bias them against those that are most likely to win an election in a particular place at a particular time. That would make them bad at their job, which is simply to win..
This brings me to Stuart Stevens, a prominent Republican consultant who has turned against the party he worked for all his adult life. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has criticized him for turning against the GOP for non-policy reasons, as if turning against one's party simply because its leader, its apparatchiks, and its grassroots base are utterly repulsive and disgusting is not good enough.
Hostility to immigrants irrational
Ultimately, policy must be effective on its own merits if it is to be politically successful. My mentor, Jack Kemp, used to pound that idea into me back in the 1970s.
My own estrangement from the Republican Party was originally rooted in policy disagreements. And part of that estrangement was that I thought that many of my former party's policies would ultimately lead to political defeat. I thought the extreme hostility to immigrants was particularly irrational given the long-observed decline in the white population and steady growth of the nonwhite population. Certainly vote-counters like Stevens could see this as well.
Yet clearly what drives the Republican hostility to immigrants goes far beyond the economic effects of immigration, because all reputable economic analysis shows that immigrants are a net plus, economically. Therefore, the antagonism to immigrants is driven by non-economic factors that are either racist or bordering on racism. I've always noticed that the anti-immigrant crowd never complains about immigrants from Canada or Scandinavia, only those with brown or yellow skins from Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East.
If one is disgusted by the motives of those behind a policy that clearly is the driving political force for those in the GOP, is this a policy disagreement or something else? I don't think it matters.
The anti-anti-Trump movement — criticizing those like Stevens and the Lincoln Project who criticize the GOP and its leaders — is the solution for conservative pundits who feel they can't defend Trump or the Republican Party's indefensible policies. But this is ultimately pedantic. They are nitpicking the critics to maintain nominal allegiance to their party and movement without being 100% intellectually dishonest.
I think this is wrong. One problem is that it is totally unsatisfactory to Republican loyalists. It's like a lawyer who insists on arguing about errors in police procedure when the client believes that his innocence should be sufficient to win his case. But it's also wrong to defend Trump no matter how idiotic or contradictory his actions, even at the cost of thousands of innocent lives in a pandemic.
USPS an enemy, QAnon a litmus test
Such people are like the pre-World War II communists who followed the party line when Joseph Stalin said they were for peace and switched overnight when they were told to be for war. Party loyalty was an end in itself no matter how absurd it looked to those outside the party.
The necessity of following the party line — set by Trump in tweets that can arrive at any time of the day or night and change position without notice — has forced Republicans into pretzels trying to explain why the Postal Service is now their enemy, why voting by mail is un-American, why wearing masks to prevent catching or spreading a deadly disease is unpatriotic, and why insane conspiracy theories promulgated by obscure internet sources have become litmus tests in Republican primaries.
This is why I think Trumpism will long outlive Trump's likely imminent defeat. Trumpists would rather control the Republican Party even at the cost of losing than admit any of their ideas are wrong, even if their ideas are only wrong in the sense that they no longer garner enough public support to elect candidates or get their preferred policies through Congress. Elected officials who try to push the envelope, even if it is essential to win their races, will find themselves outside the party's corridors of influence.
Eventually, enough defeats will empower the consultants like Stevens, who may be able to impress upon some future Republican presidential nominee that modifying the Trump policy and political approach is necessary or defeat is certain. This may trickle down to the rest of the party and lead to political revival. History suggests that the GOP will have to lose five presidential elections in a row, as it did from 1932 to 1948, before the forces of moderation, revisionism and pragmatism can defeat the advocates of mindless consistency.
Bruce Bartlett worked on Capitol Hill for Republican Reps. Ron Paul of Texas, Jack Kemp of New York and others, at the White House for President Ronald Reagan, and at the Treasury Department for President George H.W. Bush. Follow him on Twitter: @BruceBartlett This column has been adapted from a Twitter thread.
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