In a little more than a week, the Republican Party will undergo a major realignment. Either it will become the party of Trumpism, with or without Donald Trump in the White House, or it will become the party of House Speaker Paul Ryan and other economic and foreign policy conservatives. The wheels were set in motion for this realignment in 2010, when local tea party groups emerged as a loose coalition of anti-establishment Republicans.
Though the different factions of the tea party differed in their focus on major issues from state to state, they had a few elements in common. Tea partyers were as suspicious of big business as they were of big government. They were uneasy with the demographic changes taking place in the country and feared that multiculturalism and multilingualism would fundamentally change the nature of what it means to be American. They were older, likelier to be on Social Security and Medicare, and therefore suspicious of broad entitlement reform. And because they prided themselves as a bottom-up movement, many in the tea party rejected the leadership of the Republican Party and the agenda that had defined the GOP for a generation or more.
Populism became the face of this new brand of Republicanism, and it was ripe for someone like Donald Trump to capture. Paul Ryan, on the other hand, emerged from the deep roots of traditional Reagan conservatism. Those in the Ryan wing of the party were the inheritors of not only Ronald Reagan but also Jack Kemp, a former quarterback elected as a congressman from New York who became George H.W. Bush’s HUD secretary and then the 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee. Reagan and Kemp were optimistic men who sought to broaden the GOP’s appeal beyond the base.
Ryan’s supporters come from the business community, large and small, and suburbia. They want lower taxes and less government regulation and see the private economy as the country’s main engine of growth. His supporters are champions of free markets and free trade, viewing both as the path to prosperity for all Americans. They see immigrants as a resource for the future and believe that no matter where they come from, people seeking to immigrate to America will follow in the footsteps of all previous groups by learning English, moving up the economic ladder and becoming a part of the great melting pot.
But there are temperamental differences between the two faces of the Republican Party, as well. The Trump wing is motivated by anger and resentment. Its members believe they’ve been cheated in the new economy, with rewards going only to whom they deem as the elites — those with college educations and advanced degrees, who they think look down on them. And they aren’t entirely wrong about the latter.
Whereas the Trump supporters are angry, the Ryan wing of the party is cerebral, maybe too much so. Speaker Ryan told members of his party in December: “If we want to do what we believe in, then we need a mandate from the people. And if we want a mandate, then we need to offer ideas.” He laid out those ideas over the summer in his “Better Way” plan, which included tax reform, a balanced budget, health care reform, improved national security and the elimination of poverty. As comprehensive and impressive as the Ryan agenda is, it lacks the emotional appeal of “Make America Great Again” or “Build a Wall,” something to rev up audiences and rally around.
If the GOP were to become the party of Trump, I believe that it would wither and die. Demographics alone would doom it, and not just because whites are shrinking as a proportion of the population. Any party hoping for majority status has to appeal to college graduates and women, at a minimum.
But the Ryan wing of the party faces challenges, as well. It’s got to convince the Trump supporters that free trade benefits all Americans, especially working-class Americans, whose dollars go much further because of access to more affordable goods. It needs to convince those voters that newcomers aren’t just cheap labor, that they fill important niches in the economy that keep jobs in the U.S., benefiting everyone. And it has to come up with an emotional appeal that has thus far been lacking in its wonkish agenda.
If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, opposition to her big-government programs, tax increases, court nominees and nanny-state proposals will undoubtedly unite Republicans temporarily. But the party will still have to put together a winning coalition of voters if it is ever to win the White House — which will require much fence-mending and outreach to those turned off by the 2016 presidential race.
Linda Chavez is the author of ”An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal.”
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