By Tommy Richards, Ph.d
You probably read the headline of this post and asked a question: moderate Republicans still exist? Yes, they do. As the GOP has moved steadily rightward over the past several decades, few remain in the nation as a whole – but many still exist in Chester County. Take the 2016 general election as evidence. Chester County voted for Republican Pat Toomey for U.S. Senate, but supported Democrat Hillary Clinton for president, suggesting that GOP moderates in the county distrusted Trump to lead the country and (reluctantly) supported Clinton, but were willing to see Pat Toomey represent Pennsylvania as a much more traditional (albeit very conservative) Republican senator. Many likely thought that, with the polls predicting a Clinton victory, a GOP senator would prove an important conservative check on the powers of a Democratic president.
Clinton, of course, did not win. Donald Trump did. And here we are. While liberals and progressives have mobilized to an extent that has not been seen in a generation, and the right has not only acquiesced to Trump but embraced him, voters of the center-right have been left adrift. They think Trump is a buffoon, but don’t necessarily relish Nancy Pelosi potentially returning to Speaker in 2018 if the Democrats take the House. They are disturbed by the race baiting and fear mongering emanating from the GOP base, but find the left’s panic overblown. On a daily basis, these are the people who just don’t want to talk about politics with you, and quietly hope for the day when they can pull the lever for a Republican president who is knowledgeable and dignified, someone like a Palin-less John McCain, a John Kasich, or an Evan McMullin.
Here’s the problem for these voters: that’s not going to happen any time soon. The purpose of this post is twofold: first, to explain why not – and, therefore, why Chester County residents of the center and center-right need to vote Democratic, at least for the time being. It is likely they are not reading a blog post on an Indivisible website, so you should send it to them, or explain the argument in person. Second, for readers of the left, this post will explain why we should welcome these people into the fold, at least for now – why, ultimately, the restructuring of the Republican is in not just the interest of moderate Republicans, but in the interest of all Americans. Here we go:
In the last year, it has been remarkable to see Trump go farther than many of liberals’ worst fears. Only his stunning incompetence has helped mitigate his abhorrent decisions. What has been even more remarkable – and discouraging – is the Trumpifcation of the Republican Party. One by one, Republicans who had once opposed Trump’s nomination now embrace his immorality and excuse his idiocy, allowing him to run roughshod over the institutions and political norms for which they had long voiced reverence. Indeed, many have joined him in this endeavor, demonstrating the hypocrisy at the heart of the current GOP.
The recent tax bill is a case in point. Although it is a terrible bill for so many reasons, it is hardly the worst of Trump and the GOP’s policies, but perhaps more than any other policy reveals the rot that has set in in the Republican Party. It is no surprise that a Republican Congress chose to cut taxes and a Republican president to sign them into law, for that has been the Republican Party’s raison d’etre for many decades. What is surprising is how the bill ran roughshod over logic, good sense, and fiscal responsibility. Businesses have long requested a 25% corporate tax rate, and many American voters (including many Democrats) support tax reform, in which rates would be cut across the board in exchange for an elimination of the many tax code loopholes. Instead the GOP passed a bill that cut taxes for corporations but did not eliminate – in fact, expanded – loopholes, will raise taxes for the middle class in a decade, will certainly balloon the deficit (so much for the “party of fiscal responsibility”), was passed with scant debate, contained handwritten additions and subtractions in the margins of the bill, and went against the advice of almost every trained economist in the United States – including every conservative, supply-side economist. For a supposedly conservative party, this bill was deeply unconservative, all for the sake of a “win.” Importantly, if we cannot expect Republicans to behave like adults on their supposed party strength of tax policy, how can we expect them to do so with life-or-death issues like immigration, health care, or war and peace? The tax bill proved that, even in the mundane field of taxes, the once conservative GOP has become the party of Trumpified recklessness. It is important to note: all three Representatives from Chester County – Ryan Costello, Pat Meehan, and Lloyd Smucker – voted for this bill, despite the fact that this bill effectively screwed homeowners in Pennsylvania. Thanks guys.
In another world, one in which a sane GOP controlled the legislative and executive branches, or one in which the Democrats controlled one of these branches, we might expect to see a “moderate” like Ryan Costello actually act moderate. He would support tax cuts, but privilege those for the middle class over those for the wealthy. He would support tax reform, and be willing to deal with Democrats to pass such a bill. He would partake – and support – months of debate over a tax bill, for that is how bills are supposed to be passed. He would not be willing to punish his constituents for the sake of a Trump “win.” That he did none of these things is evidence that either he is no longer a moderate, or he never was. He is a Trumpist reactionary.
So, what must happen? The GOP as it exists now – rotten, irresponsible, increasingly autocratic – must be eliminated. How can this be done? To put it simply: a substantial majority of Americans must vote against them. Politicians who consistently lose elections don’t last long in politics, and parties that consistently lose elections don’t remain the same party. To reform the Republican Party in the future, it must be crushed in the present.
History demonstrates how this works. In 1992, after twelve years of GOP dominance – two terms of Ronald Reagan and one term of George H.W. Bush – Bill Clinton ran a campaign that proclaimed the “era of big government is over,” instituted a tough-on-crime policy, and passed welfare reform with the help of a GOP Congress. The Democratic Party of LBJ and Jimmy Carter was defunct (to the lament of many of us progressives). More heartening to our current situation, after the 1930s and 1940s during which Republicans were banished to the political wilderness, Dwight Eisenhower ran a 1952 campaign that promised to maintain much of the New Deal social policies of FDR, and support the western internationalist order (NATO, the United Nations) of the post-World-War-II era. He rejected the unbridled capitalism and isolationism of the Right. Eisenhower was a deeply conservative man by temperament, but his politics were fundamentally moderate – for which he earned the hostility of the right wing of the Republican Party. In spite of this hostility, Eisenhower easily won two terms, and resurrected the GOP from the electoral abyss.
Much has been made of the supposed resiliency of the largely white, blue-collar Trump base, which has stood by him in spite of his willingness to pass policies that will in fact hurt their economic prospects. This base, so the conventional wisdom goes, means that Trumpism is here to stay. But this hullaballoo misses two things. First, this base is resilient, but not impermeable, as it has slowly lost adherents. Second, 35% of the electorate sounds like a lot, but not if it is isolated. A 2018 election in which Democrats win even 60% (let alone 65%) of the vote nationally would easily flip the House, take the Senate, and rattle GOP “moderates” to their core. A 15 or 20 point victory in American politics is a landslide. The same result in 2020 would obviously defeat Trump, and – perhaps more importantly – crush the Trumpist GOP for the foreseeable future.
So, if you are a moderate Republican, you have two options in 2018: continue to vote for Republicans in the hope that they will somehow restrain Trump, despite all evidence to the contrary. Or, vote for Democrats, in the hope that a moderate Republican Party can rise from the disgraced ashes of its former Trumpian incarnation. It is, of course, easy for me as a liberal to argue this, for while Democrats remain in the political wilderness today, the path forward is clear. Win in 2018. Win in 2020. Enact legislation that is both good for the country and politically popular, thereby cementing Democratic majorities for the next several elections. The road is less clear for moderate Republicans. It is certainly unpalatable to hear that your former party of choice needs to bottom out before it can once again become worthy of your vote. That, however, is the only way forward.
Finally, as liberals, progressives, and Democrats, we should embrace any Republican and/or conservative willing to jump ship, even if this is only a temporary stance. The reasons go beyond winning elections in the near future, but to the future of the United States as a vibrant democracy. The reform of the Republican Party should not just be a goal for Republicans, but for all Americans. Even if all of our wildest liberal dreams come true over the next decade – an unlikely if, but for which we are all striving – at some point the Republican Party will win a major election. The odds say so. Since 1952, no party has succeeded in winning more than three presidential elections in a row. When this happens, it must be the party of John Kasich, Evan McMullin, and Susan Collins. What would this party look like? It would support small government, but not zero government. It would believe in climate change, but support market-driven policies to combat it. It would embrace commonsense gun registration policies, but still support gun rights more broadly. It would support border security, but acknowledge the importance of immigrants to the U.S. economy and the American value-system. It would affirm that marriage equality is now the law of the land, but offer protections to faith-based organizations who continued to oppose it. It would support lower taxes, but not at the expense of decimating the social safety net. It would, most likely, continue to be vehemently anti-choice – some things, particularly views on abortion, just don’t change in American politics.
As a liberal, I would unhesitatingly oppose this reformed Republican Party during every election. But I could also live with this Republican Party, in a way I cannot live with the Trumpist Republicans of 2016, confident (in a way I am not now) that during the next election Americans would be free to change their minds.
So, moderate Republicans, welcome aboard. We can talk again in 2024.