Donald Trump is forcing the GOP to reconsider what is 'conservative'

Divisive? Yes. But Donald Trump is also prompting the Republican Party to consider opening its doors to a wider range of views on issues from abortion to trade. 

Elaine Thompson/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Lynden, Wash., earlier this month.

Rep. Charlie Dent is a rare bird in the United States House of Representatives. He’s a moderate Republican. And while the Pennsylvanian is deeply troubled by many of Donald Trump’s positions and comments – he has not endorsed him so far – the congressman also sees “a silver lining” in the party’s presumptive presidential nominee:

“He has shattered the notion that all Republican primary voters are ideologically absolutist.”

A lot of people supporting Mr. Trump know he’s not orthodox GOP, and that doesn’t matter to them, Congressman Dent points out. “A lot of Republican voters ... are not as ideologically doctrinaire,” he says, and Trump “has lifted the mask” to reveal them.

The Republican Party has long considered itself a “big tent” party, able to accommodate many factions. But over the years, it has pulled in those cords. Republicans in Congress have grown more conservative, while Democrats have grown more liberal. And Dent, as co-chair of the Republican center-right caucus, has felt the strain as he urges more flexibility, more bipartisanship.

One message from Trump’s core working-class supporters is that the GOP tent needs to expand to include them.

“This campaign has given some pretty strong evidence that, even in an age of tea party primary challenges, the red-state electorate is more complex than we think,” says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Mr. Zelizer counts the ways that Trump has crayoned far outside the lines of party orthodoxy: 

  • The real estate mogul refuses to rule out tax increases on the wealthy.
  • He wants to keep Social Security “as is” and has lambasted House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin for wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare “way down.”
  • He attacks free trade deals.
  • He has voiced positions on Planned Parenthood and the transgender bathroom issue that are antithetical to social conservatives.
  • His “America first” foreign policy clips the wings of GOP hawks.

And then there are the many insulting comments and behavior issues, and the fact that Trump’s positions are so malleable no one is really sure what he represents other than great voter frustration with Washington. Indeed, some Republicans are still trying to find another candidate or a way to stop him at the convention.

And hard-line segments within the party are leery of any widen-the-tent imperative. Heritage Action is among the groups arguing that it is conservative voters who enlarged the Republican majority in the House and turned the Senate to GOP control.

And yet an embrace of Trump’s campaign and his voters – and thus a willingness to enlarge the tent – is clearly under way. Nine committee chairpersons in the House have endorsed Trump, and Republican leaders in both chambers emerged generally upbeat from their first date with the reality TV star when he came to the Hill last week.

The New York Times reports that leaders of several key social conservative groups are swinging behind him. The Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group, is planning a national campaign that includes knocking on doors for Trump.

Sen. Susan Collins, the moderate Republican from Maine, says Trump’s success at the ballot box is sending a number of messages to GOP officeholders. One of them is  that the party has not done a good enough job in communicating with “people who feel they are left out.”

She told reporters last Thursday, for instance, that Trump's position on trade is causing her colleagues to look at the broader implications of free-trade agreements.

“Oftentimes the argument is made that trade agreements result in lower prices for consumers. What is lost in that argument is if you’ve lost your job because of a trade agreement, the fact that consumer prices may be a few pennies less doesn’t really resonate with you,” she said.

Might a Trump presidency mean a realignment of factions and priorities?

“Who knows?” answers Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, the majority whip in the GOP-controlled Senate. But certainly Trump voters are “pretty fed up” with both parties’ inability to get things done, he says, though he thinks voters underestimate how hard it is to build consensus and navigate the Constitution’s separation of powers.

Still, Senator Cornyn adds, if Trump were president “I would like to think that … we’ll be in a position to sort of reshuffle the deck and start over again and solve some big problem.”

Historically, factions wax and wane within parties. Modern Republican history has seen the rise of the Christian Right, of Grover Norquist and his no-tax pledge, and of the tea party.

“There’s always going to be a fluctuation of which faction within the party is on the rise,” says Amy Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Both parties, she says, have gravitated to their ideological poles, and both have ignored the block of frustrated and economically insecure white workers who are backing Trump and Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist from Vermont. And Professor Black says both parties need to broaden their tent, particularly with the general election pending.

Of course, the challenge for any political party is to hang on to its base voters while reaching out to the broader electorate. Though Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about immigrants might connect with many white working-class voters in, say, Pennsylvania or Michigan, it may cost him a state like Arizona.

Speaker Ryan, who has still not endorsed Trump, made this very point after meeting with the presumptive nominee last week. Trump’s performance on the campaign trail has been “unparalleled,” Ryan admitted, with the Republican primaries attracting a historically high number of voters.

“The question is … how do we unify it all, so this is really a big and growing movement? How do we keep adding and adding voters while not subtracting any voters?”

It’s the question of the larger tent.

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