Special To The Washington Post
Last year, I wrote an article calling Donald Trump a godsend for moderate Republicans. Trump, I predicted, would lose so spectacularly that the GOP would be forced to transform itself, surrendering its mindless obstructionism, science denial, xenophobia and plutocracy. After a purge like that, the party would finally be able to compete in future national elections.
I was wrong. I now see that Trump’s candidacy has exacerbated the Republican Party’s weaknesses, alienating minorities, fracturing the base and stunting smart policy development. The party’s structural problems are so severe that reform is impossible. Even if Trump loses and the GOP races to forget him, the party is doomed. And very few of our leaders seem to care.
In the short run, it will be easy for Republicans to convince themselves that nothing needs to change. The establishment believes that Trump is an anomaly, an aberration. GOP leaders think the party’s next nominee will be a more typical politician who knows the issues, has well-developed debating skills and who will appeal to the elite and the Trumpkins. Someone like John Kasich or Marco Rubio.
Many leaders also assume that Hillary Clinton is an automatic one-termer. They think she’s incompetent, scandal-ridden and hell-bent on destroying the economy. They know, too, that neither party has held the White House for more than three terms in the post-World War II era.
But Clinton’s chances of being re-elected in 2020 are better than Republicans think. Already, Democrats have a virtual lock on 18 states, giving them an almost automatic 242 electoral votes. States such as Virginia, Colorado and Florida routinely vote Democratic, too.
Additionally, the Republican Party will have to contend with the Trump constituency, which will remain a powerful force in the presidential primaries (fueled, perhaps, by a Trump cable channel). White nationalists will continue to back racist candidates, alienating minority voters. It’s not hard to imagine another cycle with 17 candidates vying for the nomination. If that comes to pass, someone could win the primary race with less than half the vote, as Trump did. It could well be a candidate unpopular with mainstream conservatives. Even if not, it’s hard to imagine Republicans unifying around a consensus candidate.
If Clinton wins a second term, major progressive change becomes possible. Sixteen years of Democratic presidents will give the Supreme Court a solid liberal majority, making electoral reform doable. Restrictions on campaign contributions and gerrymandering could emerge, making it harder to draw districts that reliably swing one way or the other. If Democrats put resources into state legislative races, they may be able to undercut GOP gerrymandering after the 2020 census. The practice gives Republicans more seats than their share of the aggregate House vote—in 2014 they earned 51 percent of the vote but 57 percent of the seats.
By 2022, it’s possible that Democrats will control Congress and gridlock will be broken. Once that happens, the federal government will be able to tackle major issues. The constant Republican demands for budget cuts, tax cuts and deregulation won’t be the starting points for all policy discussion. We could see fundamental tax reform that raises rates for the rich and multinational corporations, meaningful measures to address climate change, fresh funding for crumbling infrastructure, and a public option for the Affordable Care Act. These measures, which I support, are popular with Americans. Their passage will bring more voters into the Democratic fold.
These policies will, of course, be opposed by Republicans (even those who know better) because the GOP’s Trump/tea party wing will control the nominating and primary process for years to come, dooming any leader or lawmaker who compromises with Democrats.
At this point, corporations and lobbyists will have to work almost exclusively with the Democratic Party to have a seat at the policy table. Even the billionaires who now provide the oil that keeps the GOP machine lubricated may decide that if they can’t have tax cuts, they should try to carve out special breaks for themselves. To do so, they may start funding friendly Democratic candidates and campaigns. As former U.S. deputy Treasury secretary Roger Altman showed recently in the Financial Times, businesspeople are already flocking to Clinton, and to Democrats more broadly.
Deprived of funding and business support, the national GOP will shrivel to what the party has become in California—irrelevant politically and unable to win outside its wealthy, right-wing enclaves. Republicans hold just 35 percent of the California Senate and Assembly, and have no hope of regaining the governor’s mansion or U.S. Senate seats. Virtually all debate about policy takes place among the Democratic Party’s strong factions. Everyone who matters is a Democrat.
Eventually, of course, Democrats will become corrupt, will overreach or will bear the blame for things beyond their control, like a recession. They may foolishly nominate someone too far left for the country, giving a Republican another shot at the White House. A strong leader could change the GOP’s trajectory, like Dwight Eisenhower did after five straight Republican presidential losses from 1932 to 1948. He put the party, as conservative then as it is today (just read the 1952 platform) on a more moderate, technocratic path that continued for a quarter-century through Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. A leader like Eisenhower might help right the GOP, attracting moderate voters and enhancing the party’s crossover appeal.
When I began criticizing the GOP for pandering to populists and extremists, I was largely alone. But now, longtime Republican luminaries, including John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, and Washington Post columnist George Will, share my perspective. Many, such as Josh Barro, a columnist for Business Insider, have virtually washed their hands of the party, viewing the intellectual rot as terminal.
Of course, the conservative era that lasted from 1994 to 2016 will leave behind legacies—some court decisions and legislative policies, such as aggressive tax cuts and a focus on deficit reduction, will be hard to reverse. But by and large, the right will cease being the obstacle to progress that it has been. Democrats will have to follow through with policy actions and political organizing at the state and local levels if they hope to see a long-term period in power. Still, the ground is being plowed and a brighter future—one without gridlock, when one major party can enact sweeping change—is visible on the horizon.
Because of the way our government is set up, the United States will probably always have two parties. But it is not foreordained that the GOP will be the center-right party. It could go the way of the Whigs or Canada’s Conservative Party in 1993 and literally disappear, or it could reconstitute itself so radically that it bears little resemblance to the Republican Party of today. One thing, however, is certain: A party that cannot capture the White House cannot survive.