Reluctantly, the Republican establishment is coming to terms with the shortcomings that Donald Trump’s insurgent campaign has laid bare.
What to do about them, however, remains as mystifying as ever.
On one hand, Mr. Trump embodies the “happy warrior.” For a party that has been caricatured as dour malcontents determined to say “no” to anything and everything, Trump’s success in casting himself as a can-do, fix-it man who dares to “Make America Great Again” constitutes a rebuke.
Yet, at the same time, Trump also embodies the headlong race toward the politics of fear, most clearly with his proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
There is little doubt that those politics can win votes. Yet there is also a growing sense that those politics, repeated during the recent past, have played no small part in bringing the Republican Party to where it is today – with considerable power, but desperately holding on to a tiger’s tail of voter anger.
In its broadest terms, the question posed by the rise of Trump is how to move past the politics of anger and reclaim the mantle of Ronald Reagan – someone who “made people happy to vote for him.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan has already attempted to stake out this ground, and a new generation of conservative thinkers is laying out a vision of a Republican Party that embraces issues of poverty, reaches out to new voters, and shows compassion.
The lessons aren’t new. A post mortem of Mitt Romney’s decisive loss to President Obama in 2012 came to the same conclusions. Exit polls showed that most voters did not think Mr. Romney “cares about people like me.” But Trump’s ascendance has created a fresh urgency, painting a stark picture of a party potentially on the brink of major losses in Washington.
“Ronald Reagan won in 1980 because he was the happier candidate, he was the candidate with the bigger heart, he made people happy to vote for him,” said Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington think tank, at gathering of conservative activists last week. “How many conservative leaders today have that?”
'This isn't about Trump'
For many GOP activists, the serial controversies of the Trump campaign revive tribal memories of the 1964 blowout defeat of conservative Barry Goldwater, whose views came to be viewed as too harsh and extreme for general election voters.
In 2016, it’s not just the White House that’s at risk but also the GOP’s hard-won control of the Senate.
But attacks by GOP leaders only appear to drive Trump’s poll ratings higher, confirming the low esteem that voters have for the current Republican establishment. After a report last week that GOP officials had met to secretly prepare for the possibility of a brokered convention that could deny Trump the nomination, his poll ratings hit a record high at 38 percent of registered Republican-leaning voters.
“This isn’t about Trump,” Mr. Ryan told The New York Times on Friday. “This is about do we run on substance or do we run on personality? If we run on personality, we lose those elections.”
In a signature speech last week, Ryan laid out his plans to turn the GOP into a party of positive ideas.
It is a vision that harks back to former Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, whose ideas on how to create jobs, lift people out of poverty, and grow a more inclusive party helped define the Reagan Revolution and inspired a generation of Republican activists, including Ryan, who calls Mr. Kemp his mentor.
And Ryan isn’t the only conservative seeking to resuscitate the “happy warrior” pioneered by Kemp.
“People see us as grim, grumpy, and unhappy, and that’s got to stop,” said Mr. Brooks last Wednesday.
“Conservatives have the right stuff to lift up the poor and vulnerable – but have been generally terrible at winning people’s hearts,” he adds in his latest book, “The Conservative Heart: How to build a fairer, happier, and more prosperous America.”
“Effective conservatives are not people who fight only for people who support them but also for people who need them” – especially groups that generally vote against Republicans, such as Latinos, African Americans, single women, Millennials, and the poor, he writes.
This has not been the course of the Republican Party in recent years, though there have been signs of a shift. Ryan and Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, in particular, have stepped beyond the traditional white, male, middle- and working-class base to address issues of poverty.
But the call is broadening. Last Wednesday’s event for conservative activists was held at the headquarters of Americans for Tax Reform, the group that pioneered the taxpayer protection pledge in 1986 to put politicians on record in opposition to raising taxes. Over time, however, that approach came to be viewed as supporting mainly the top 1 percent.
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist left no doubt that that is not the Republican Party he wants.
“Conservatives need to talk to people who don’t see free market economics as solving problems,” he said last week. “That’s particularly where you need to be a happy warrior, a conservative with heart.”
Trump has some of that confident, outgoing style, but little of the policy, Norquist added. “He keeps saying, ‘I can fix it’ and ‘I will fix it.’ I’d be more comfortable with more specific policy suggestions.”
The birth of the 'Reformicon'
Just as security-focused conservative “neocons” emerged after 9/11, a new breed of conservative “reformicon” is emerging in the wake of the Great Recession, with policies aimed at helping middle-class workers, students, and the poor.
“Reformicon” proposals include empowering investors to pay a student’s tuition in return for a percentage of future earnings, requiring colleges and universities to pay a percentage of student loans in cases of default, and establishing a new Homestead Act to give tax breaks and income-support to encourage worker mobility to areas with better job prospects.
“In the conservative intellectual community, there’s a real effort to come up with ways of dealing with low wages, providing assistance to people to find jobs, keep jobs, give a decent living,” says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at AEI. “But none of the presidential candidates are talking about these things and not very many members of Congress.”
And that is the issue.
“As much as the [GOP] establishment wants to reassert an optimistic view, that line of thinking does not appear to be what is pushing the front-runners up in the polls,” says GOP strategist John Ullyot, managing director of High Lantern Group in Washington.
“The Republican electorate seems to be responding much more this cycle to a harsher rhetorical line, and that’s probably not good for the party in the long term, but there’s not much that can be done about that for the time being,” he adds.
In the aftermath of Mr. Romney’s 2012 loss, the No. 1 recommendation by a blue-ribbon report from the Republican National Committee opened with a reference to Kemp: “Jack Kemp used to say, No one cares what you know until they know you care."
But little changed in the GOP, and while Trump has his own vision of the promise of the future, he is also cashing in on fear. The latest polls suggest his support is surging in the wake of recent terrorist attacks.
Trump is “channeling anger felt by a certain sector of the electorate that’s no different from what’s felt in Europe among the white working class,” says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and a leading Reformicon.
“It would be nice to think that the way to appeal to the Trump constituency is to actually address their concerns, which is that they are losing ground under the current economic regime,” he adds. “That suggests that a party that focuses on gutting entitlements and taxes for the top 1 percent is not meeting their needs.”
“You can smile all you want, but that dog won’t hunt,” he says.