Wednesday, December 23, 2015

David Frum on Class War Inside the Republican Base

David Frum/ photo

David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine. He is a self-described neoconservative, although he has become critical of GOP tactics and direction in recent years. His article in The Atlantic, The Great Republican Revolt is worth a read.

Here is the gist:

For the past few years we have fretted about how big money controls our politics. Citizens United has been bandied about as a shibboleth that explains all ills of politics. Well...., the success of Trump shows us that grass roots politics matter. All the money in the world won't buy you an election, if you don't have the base with you. The GOP base is in open revolt against the big money Republican message of tax-cuts, budget-cuts, free-trade, and muscular foreign policy.

Romney (2012), says Frum, ran as a classic big money conservative, with an orthodoxy of tax cuts, budget cuts, deregulation, and free trade. The concession he made to the GOP base was some stricter enforcement of immigration. That didn't work.

When Romney lost decisively (332-206 electoral votes) the party GOP party elite refused to accept this as a repudiation of  GOP orthodoxy (tax cuts-budget cuts-deregulation-free trade). They infamously deluded themselves that Romney was going to win right up 'til the polls closed, and when he didn't, they didn't see this as a reason to change. They stayed with the same orthodoxy, but opted to try kinder gentler talk on immigration. Nothing for the middle class.

In support of the new kinder-gentler on immigration GOP strategy, Rubio, as part of a gang of eight, supported legislation in the Senate for immigration reform, which included a path to citizenship. Jeb Bush, the GOP establishment anointed one for 2016 talked kinder, gentler on immigration, referring to illegal immigration as "an act of love." The GOP big money elite's plan going into the '16 election cycle, in other words, was GOP classic orthodoxy (tax cuts-budget cut-deregulation-free trade) plus immigration reform. Everything to serve the big money interests, plus immigration reform to make the GOP seem less hateful.

Jeb Bush raised gobs of money from the GOP money guys to carry this program forward.

The base didn't buy it. The revolt started with the ouster of the House Majority leader, Eric Cantor, in 2014, and when Jeb! declared for the Presidency, he was dead on arrival. Instead, the GOP base has embraced Trump.

Who is that base? 

Class warfare is no longer between the GOP and the Democrats, says Frum. Class warfare has gone intra-party: Wall Street Republicans vs. Main Street Republicans; wine rack Democrats vs. beer rack Democrats. This fissure has come into the open this year in the Republican party. 

Main street Republicans include the white middle class, the Tea Party from 2010-11.  They are the ones who feel that their life and life prospects used to be better. This middle class part of the GOP electorate is not in line with the big money GOP orthodoxy: they are not small government libertarians, nor ideological ultra-conservatives, nor particularly religious. They are the white middle class that feels it has lost ground and prospects. They are insecure and angry. They are anti establishment organizations: anti-government, anti-union, but also anti-corporation. 

This GOP base wants to protect entrenched entitlements, but entitlements for those who are deserving. Who are the deserving? The traditionally privileged white middle class, the traditional working class (not illegal immigrants, new immigrants, the homeless, or inner city blacks). These white middle class voters do not support cuts in Medicare programs, or cuts in Social Security. To the extent they feel their entrenched benefits are threatened, says Frum, they are nationalistic and nativistic. They lean GOP because they are afraid the Democrats want to take benefits from them and redistribute them to newer Americans--the foreign born, immigrants, the poor, the less deserving. They are against migrants who make new claims, against globalized markets that depress wages and benefits. 

This GOP white middle class base has come to feel that the GOP elite does not have their best interest at heart. [And who can blame them?] So along comes Trump. 

Trump has rejected the GOP party elite, and has rejected GOP classic orthodoxy to a surprising extent. He has scoffed at trade agreements; he has called out the hegemony of big donors; he has rejected the Bush war in Iraq; he is not talking about cutting social security or entrenched benefits; to the contrary, he is talking about preserving these benefits. He feeds into the nationalist insecurity and anger of the base, which is angry at big corporations, angry at foreign policy adventures, angry at free trade, and angry about lack of prospects for the middle class. So Trump talks about Wall Street making too much money and being out of control. 

Where does this go? 

Frum sees four potential paths for the GOP of 2016. 

1.  Double Down: Maybe Jeb! is simply the wrong messenger, too freighted down with his family's legacy to carry the Classic GOP orthodoxy forward. Maybe GOP orthodoxy (tax cuts-budget cuts-deregulation-free trade) is just fine.... provided the GOP gets a bright young face AND trashes immigrants.  That's Rubio's campaign thinking. That's why the establishment dollars are switching from Jeb! to Rubio.   And, even if not Rubio, perhaps an outsider (like Cruz or Fiorina--seemingly solid GOP conservatives) and $100 million in negative advertising to trash Hillary will get the job done?  Andrew Prokop at Vox breaks down the prospects for the four GOP establishment candidates: Rubio, Bush, Christie, Kasich. 

Frum seems skeptical. 

2. Tactical concession: Carry on with GOP orthodoxy (tax cuts, budget cuts, deregulation) but make concessions to the base on anti-immigration, and anti-free trade populism--at least for the election.  That seems to be the strategy of Ted Cruz and Chris Christie, says Frum. 

Frum seems skeptical that gimmicks will get the job done. 

3. Real Reform

Real reform, suggests Frum, would entail ditching the ideological tax-cutting, budget-cutting, and deregulating, and free-trading ideology, and turning the GOP into a true center right party with an eye to benefitting not just the rich, but the middle-class. 
[P]arty elites could try to open more ideological space for the economic interests of the middle class. Make peace with universal health-insurance coverage: Mend Obamacare rather than end it. Cut taxes less at the top, and use the money to deliver more benefits to working families in the middle. Devise immigration policy to support wages, not undercut them. Worry more about regulations that artificially transfer wealth upward, and less about regulations that constrain financial speculation. Take seriously issues such as the length of commutes, nursing-home costs, and the anticompetitive practices that inflate college tuition. Remember that Republican voters care more about aligning government with their values of work and family than they care about cutting the size of government as an end in itself. Recognize that the gimmick of mobilizing the base with culture-war outrages stopped working at least a decade ago.
Such a party would cut health-care costs by squeezing providers, not young beneficiaries. It would boost productivity by investing in hard infrastructure—bridges, airports, water-treatment plants. It would restore Dwight Eisenhower to the Republican pantheon alongside Ronald Reagan and emphasize the center in center-right.
Frum seems in favor of this but skeptical that it's in the cards.  It would be Un-American.

4. Rig the Rules of the Game Even More: The political rules in America, of course, are fixed in a way to favor the GOP. Two senators from each state greatly favors the rural red states.  Gerrymandering, and natural urban/rural splits also provide an advantage in the House. So maybe internal party rules can be rigged to keep out non-establishement candidates like Trump?

Frum is not recommending it.

This article does useful categorization to help us keep track of how the GOP politics will unfold in the next few years.

Matt Yglesias tweets that Frum is way too pessimistic about the Republican chances.  Stay tuned.... Iowa caucuses are just five weeks away.

You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

1 comment:

  1. Good luck with all of that. To use what is likely to be considered an an ethnic slur in some regions, the jinni is out of the bottle. The republican id is in control (at least in the polls). It is 9/12 in America. All the fear, hatred, skepticism, unrest,and "truth" has leapt out of from the call=in shows and comments sections of blogs (hmmm) and have become Trump/Cruz talking points.
    The GOP can win next November if voter turnout is low in the African-American communities in PA, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia and suburban republicans hold their noses (keeping them out of of wine bottles) and vote for whatever extreme GOP candidate wins.
    The key is President Obama. He needs to be an extreme partisan from Labor 2016 to the election. He has to energize the base. HRC has to get suburban women in swing states to support women's reproductive and work place rights over lower taxes.
    And somewhere lurks a Trump personal tale...that I have predicting for months. The stray Miss Universe candidate. The disgruntled (mean) banker). The corrupt Chinese official. Something that will bring him down.