A lot of voters who normally vote Republican, or at least consider voting Republican, have a strong aversion to the direction of the Republican Party under President Donald Trump. What should they do in the next few elections?
A lot of intriguing answers have recently emerged — some involving a boycott of the GOP, or commissions, or new laws. But the correct answer is far less complicated: Only Republicans or those who lean that way can steer the party back from its radical path.
This discussion began with an argument from two nonpartisan and anti-Trump centrists, Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes. Folks like them have taken pride in voting for good candidates from both parties. Now, they argue, they must vote against Republicans up and down the ballot. Only by doing so can people contain the real threat to democracy posed by Trump and what they call “Trump’s Republican enablers.”
Ross Douthat responded by emphasizing the extent to which many Republicans — especially in the Senate — have in fact pushed back against Trump and Trumpism. Wouldn’t voting against all Republicans ignore the important distinctions between senators such as Richard Burr and Jeff Flake on the one hand, and Representative Devin Nunes on the other? Douthat isn’t wrong that individual senators (and others within the political system) have done quite a bit to constrain Trump’s worst instincts. But as Greg Sargent points out, even those Republicans who have been toughest on Trump have still picked their fights carefully, which means they’re looking the other way on many of his still-important, if perhaps less immediately urgent, norm violations.
I think the question between Douthat and Sargent can be resolved, at least to some extent, by thinking about the dangers to democracy raised by Trump in particular, compared to those raised by Trump as the leader of a radical Republican Party. The more one thinks it’s just him, the more it would be okay to strategically target those positions which matter most to constraining him, which basically means U.S. House and Senate elections.
If, however, one believes that something’s gone seriously wrong with the Republican Party since the 1990s, and that Trump is both a symptom of a dysfunctional party and a cause of further anti-democratic tendencies, then something more drastic is needed. Even more drastic, that is, than what Rauch and Wittes suggest. After all, as Brian Beutler points out, dramatic losses for Republicans in 2006 and 2008 made them — if anything — more radical, not less. They attributed policy failures during the George W. Bush presidency to weakness and compromise. Just as they did when George H.W. Bush was defeated in 1992.
So if boycotting Republicans won’t change anything, what will?
The same thing that made Republicans this way in the first place: Changing the party from the inside.
Look, there’s no reason that a party of social conservatives or fiscal conservatives or foreign policy hawks has to eschew compromise and spend half its energy hunting RINOs. But general elections are a poor venue for changing a party. Anyone who is strongly anti-abortion is going to find it awfully hard to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 even if she has severe hesitations about Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies — just as anyone whose main political concern is opposing gun control is going to find it hard to support any Democrat for the House in 2018, even if he really does want the House to hold Trump accountable for conflicts of interest and other such scandals.
Nominations define parties. So anyone who wants to change the Republican Party — in particular, those in regular Republican groups and those with mainstream Republican policy preferences — needs to get involved in nomination politics if they’re going to have any success. And they’re going to have to find allies within the party who may hold different positions on issues, but agree on the need to banish radicalism, norm-breaking, and anti-democratic attitudes from the party.
I’m not especially optimistic that this can happen, but I do believe that it’s exactly the kind of unexpected action that’s always possible, even if unlikely, in politics. I do have some confidence in that Democrats have for the most part been successful at keeping their own radicals on the fringes where they belong, leading me to hope that Republicans could do the same thing. And I’m very skeptical that Republican rank-and-file voters are committed to radicalism in any deep sense. Voters usually just like the politicians from their party; that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like some alternative group of politicians.
That doesn’t mean making the Republican Party safe for sane conservatives is easy, by any means. The incentives within the party now are strongly set in favor of craziness. Moreover, committing to norms means passing up some opportunities (or at least seeming opportunities) to hurt the other party, and it’s always hard to explain to those who care about policy that a party won’t do something they could get away with just because, well, that’s not how politics is done.
If the Republican Party is to change, however, it’s going to take nomination battles for every office from president down to dog-catcher. In the long run, that’s going to be more important than how anyone votes in November.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.