The three GOPs

William Galston tries to reconcile the three parts of the Republican Party after the Nov. 8 disaster:

No Republican will ever try harder than Mr. Trump has to make working-class white voters the centerpiece of a majority coalition. His no-holds barred effort to mobilize them has offended minority voters as well as the more educated white voters who have long supported more mainstream conservative candidates. If current trends continue, he will register single-digit support among African-Americans, he will underperform Mitt Romney’s woeful showing among Latinos, and he will lose to Hillary Clinton among college-educated women.

Underlying these results are deep structural tensions. On economics, today’s Republicans are—like Caesar’s Gaul—divided into three parts. Establishment conservatives reflect the interests of corporate America. They favor free trade, immigration reform, and well-targeted public investment. They are broadly internationalist and mostly support the treaties and institutions through which the United States exercises global influence.

They believe in climate change and can live with reasonable measures to abate it. They want corporate tax reform, but not at the expense of provisions in the current code that benefit their economic sectors. They would like individual tax reform but already can use the current code to minimize their effective tax rate. They believe in “entitlement reform” but would accept revenue increases along with it—the ever-elusive “grand bargain” at the heart of blue-ribbon commissions.

Second come the small-town, small-government conservatives who channel the anxieties and antipathies of the National Federation of Independent Business and whose sentiments pervade the Paul Ryan-House Republican manifesto, “A Better Way.” They believe—passionately—that government is the principal obstacle to growth. They insist on major tax cuts, especially in the individual code through which their unincorporated businesses are taxed, and fervently reject any new taxes.

They favor reductions in domestic spending (especially welfare), structural changes in Medicare and Medicaid, and an all-out assault on the regulatory state. Compared to their corporate brethren, their outlook is more nationalist. They mostly depend on the domestic market rather than exports and frown on institutions such as the Export-Import Bank, which they regard as corporate welfare. They are not invited to meetings at Davos.

And lastly, we reach the populist conservatives, many of them working class, about whom so much has been written in this election cycle. They mistrust all large institutions, especially the federal government, but they do not have an ideological preference for smaller government. They depend on costly programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Disability Insurance and stand to benefit from the expanded infrastructure investments that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have proposed.

They see large corporations as indifferent, even hostile, to their interests and concerns. They view the world outside the United States more as a threat than an opportunity. So they oppose trade agreements as well as large immigration flows and are suspicious of the obligations that alliances such as NATO impose on the U.S. Like Mr. Trump, they regard such arrangements, on balance, as burdens rather than benefits. For them, “America First” is more than a slogan; it is a demand.

Despite the hostility between Paul Ryan and Mr. Trump, it is just possible to see how small-government conservatives and populist conservatives might make common cause. The small-government advocates could make their peace with Social Security and phase in changes to Medicare slowly enough to convince the populists, many of whom are near retirement age, that they have nothing to fear. Over time, they might be able to smooth the rough edges off the ethno-nationalism that has disfigured the Trump campaign and repelled so many Americans. Issues such as trade and immigration would remain points of contention, but focusing on border security and tougher enforcement of existing trade agreements could make the tensions manageable.

It is harder to see how establishment conservatives can find a place within this coalition. Their policy agenda contradicts the demands of the populists, and their outlooks are antithetical. They know that their long-term success depends on the kinds of public investments that small government conservatives shun—and the economic internationalism that populists abhor. Having abandoned the bipartisanship they espoused after World War II and casting their lot with the Republican Party, they find their influence shrinking among the kinds of conservatives who have come to dominate the GOP.

As working-class white voters left the Democrats after the 1960s, Republicans won them over with appeals to cultural traditionalism and American exceptionalism. It was a low-cost acquisition. Now, with the hollowing-out of the manufacturing sector on which working class communities depended, the bill—a balloon payment—has come due.

As a non-Republican I’d say I’m in Galston’s second group. Opposition to big government is not necessarily incompatible with opposition to big business, given all the similarities beyond the fact that business has to earn what it gets, unlike Govzilla.

The first group probably makes a fair amount of tacit Hillary Clinton supporters; they’re conservative in the original sense of the word — they don’t like change because the current system works for them.

The Wisconsin GOP has more from the first and third groups than the second. The state GOP hasn’t done nearly enough to promote small government, and that has been the case far longer than Ryan has been in politics. There are no effective constitutional limits on government growth in this state. There are legislative limits, but anything legislative can be erased by the Legislature. It is, of course, against the GOP’s political limits to advocate something that would make election results less important, but until a Taxpayer Bill of Rights-like mechanism becomes part of the state Constitution the GOP has to get voters to believe that the GOP will increase government less than Democrats would.

 

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