Pence's speech didn't fully express the extent of the GOP's decrepitude
Trump's GOP leaves Reaganesque conservatives politically homeless. What to do about it?
I suppose there is some utility in Mike Pence attempting to frame the Republican presidential nomination contest as a choice as to whether the Republican Party stands for traditional Reaganesque conservatism or Trumpian rightwing populism. It’s at least a challenge to rightwing populism’s attempted misappropriation of the conservative label.
However, Pence’s speech gave a misleading account of the pre-Trumpian Republican Party. And it didn’t really fully explore the depth and consequences of the political and moral choice the Trumpian GOP presents traditional Reaganesque conservatives.
The Republican Party was never synonymous with conservatism, not even during Reagan’s presidency. But it was a political vehicle through which conservatives could hope to advance preferred policies and candidates, and a superior vehicle to any other.
Reagan midwifed a political reorientation. Before Reagan, there were such things as liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. In fact, they were substantial factions within the respective caucuses. After Reagan, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats disappeared as political forces. The two major parties acquired an ideological tint. The Democratic Party acquired a liberal tint; the Republican Party a conservative one.
But it goes too far to say that the Republican Party became the Conservative Party.
Bill Buckley, who largely invented post-World War II American conservatism, used to make a useful distinction between a politician who was “conservative” and one who was “a conservative”. He first used it, to my knowledge, with respect to the first President Bush. A politician who was “conservative” would generally find himself on the conservative side of a public policy question. But he didn’t necessarily view the political landscape through the prism of the principles of American conservatism as Buckley had developed and articulated them. According to Buckley, Bush I was “conservative” but not “a conservative”.
Those principles were free markets, a limited federal government, a strong national defense and an active anti-communist foreign policy, and traditional cultural values informed by religion.
Of Republican nominees for president in the modern era, only Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan could be described as “a conservative”. And Reagan governed as a pragmatic conservative, not a doctrinaire one.
Most of the other Republican nominees – Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney – could be described as leaning toward the conservative side. But none of them was “a conservative” in Buckley’s sense.
The second President Bush, George W., was an interesting case. He regarded himself as “a conservative”. But he, or at least his political consigliere Karl Rove, aspired to make conservatism an enduring governing movement by transforming it. Conservatism would reconcile itself to a large and energetic federal government, but harness it to achieve conservative, rather than liberal, ends. Bush II’s signature education bill was an example. Federal funding for K-12 education, opposed by small-government conservatives, would be substantially increased, but tied to the conservative reform of accountability through testing.
To me, big-government conservatism wasn’t conservatism. But it is increasingly a tenet of rightwing populism.
As with any major party in a two-party system, there were many strands of influence and support for Republican candidates between Goldwater and Trump. There was the business community. There were economic conservatives, with a stress on free markets, low taxation, and light regulation. There were social conservatives, with an emphasis on abortion, pornography, and support for families. There were national security conservatives, with an emphasis on defense and foreign policy.
And there were rightwing populists, with an emphasis on immigration, protectionism, and withdrawing from entangling international alliances. Pace Pence, this was always part of the Republican coalition, and not an insubstantial part. In the 1990s, this point of view was championed by Pat Buchanan, who tended to draw about a quarter of the vote in Republican primaries.
So, again pace Pence, while the GOP wasn’t a conservative party, it was a comfortable political vehicle for conservatives to operate within and through. Full-spectrum conservatives could hope to advance their causes and candidates through it, and more so than through any alternatives.
Arizona offers a good illustration of the range of the GOP coalition until the rise of Trump. For many years, Arizona’s two U.S. senators were John McCain and Jon Kyl.
I borrowed Buckley’s distinction between a politician who was “conservative” and one who was “a conservative” to explain McCain to a Hoover Institution audience when I was briefly a media fellow there during McCain’s first run for the presidency. McCain had an independent streak and wasn’t even consistently “conservative,” much less “a conservative”. He not infrequently supported liberal causes such as campaign finance reform and climate change regulation. Yet he consistently won Republican primaries and general elections by wide margins.
Kyl was “a conservative” in the Buckley formulation. He, like Reagan, was a full-spectrum conservative. And like Reagan, he was pragmatic in governing. Except for his first run for the House, Kyl was never seriously challenged in Republican primaries and he also consistently won general elections by wide margins.
So, until Trump, the Arizona Republican Party was a broad enough coalition that both a McCain and a Kyl could prosper within it. And, in 2012, Jeff Flake, at that time a more doctrinaire libertarian conservative, won the Republican Party primary to replace the retiring Kyl and won the general election as well.
Today, in the Trumpian GOP, I don’t think McCain, Kyl, or Flake could win a Republican primary. And – unlike McCain, Kyl, and Flake – the GOP nominees don’t seem able to win a general election.
Under Trump, three things have changed. First, rightwing populism has become the dominant strand within the GOP, rather than a minority strand. Second, today’s rightwing populists aren't interested in building coalitions that win general elections. Other factions on the right, including traditional, Reaganesque conservatives, are treated as enemies rather than potential governing partners.
And finally, rightwing populism has become a personality cult in service to Donald Trump, who attempted a coup to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Many commentators have pointed out that, contrary to Pence, there isn’t really a contest going on for the soul and future of the Republican Party. It is a rightwing populist party in service to a dangerous demagogue who attempted a coup. Perhaps that will break up during the presidential primaries. But, at present, there is little reason to believe that’s much of a possibility.
Stated bluntly, the Trumpian Republican Party is no longer a vehicle through which traditional Reaganesque conservatives can hope to advance their causes and candidates. So, how to respond?
Given a binary choice, there will be reasons for Reaganesque conservatives to prefer rightwing populist candidates to Democratic ones on policy. The Trump administration produced some conservative advances, on judges, taxes, and regulation.
There remain some policy overlaps between Reaganesque conservatism and rightwing populism. Although, as Pence pointed out in his speech, the overlap between true conservatism and rightwing populism is shrinking, and that between rightwing populism and leftwing progressivism, for instance on industrial policy, is increasing.
However, so long as Trump is the tribune of rightwing populism in the United States, there is a moral problem with voting for its candidates based upon policy preferences. So long as Trump is leader of the cause, a vote for him or his candidates is to associate oneself, however tenuously, with his attempted coup. There are some things more important than policy preferences. Respect for democratic norms is one.
I have long concluded that our two-party system, with partisan nominating primaries, distorts democratic choices and contributes considerably to lousy governance. I’ve long advocated a truly nonpartisan top-two primary system as a replacement. In such a system, all candidates run against each other in the primary without party labels, and the two top vote-getters run off against each other in the general, again without party labels. Political parties would become completely private organizations with no official electoral role.
Given how long the Republican Party was a useful political vehicle for Reaganesque conservatives, there’s instinctive reluctance to junk the two-party system and partisan primaries. However, as Pence’s speech gives the occasion to observe, Reaganesque conservatives are politically homeless right now. The rightwing populists in charge of the GOP regard our candidates, and increasingly our causes, with derision and scorn. Even giving them our vote has a moral taint to it.
I think a nonpartisan top-two system would better fit today’s electorate regardless of political calculations regarding advancing true conservative candidates and causes. There’s just no reason to give rightwing populists and woke progressives a disproportionate say – indeed, as a practical matter, a duopoly – on choosing general election candidates.
But the political calculation is worth contemplating. Should traditional Reaganesque conservatives hold out hope that the pre-Trump GOP will somehow return? Or will we fare better taking a chance on a new way of choosing general election candidates?
I’ve given you my answer.
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org.