If there is a consensus on anything in the American political landscape — one thing we can agree on — it is this: the Republican Party is in trouble. The rise of anti-establishment figures has brought it to a crossroads between being the party of American traditionalism and conservatism and the one that simply criticizes and castigates the government without offering solutions.
This has been especially prominent in the early stages of the 2016 campaign with the meteoric rises of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina. Each of them takes pride in being foreign to the political arena and claims their experience outside of politics is exactly what will propel them to enacting reform in the government. But they fail to go so far as to articulate how exactly they will do so. So much time is spent bashing and insulting the political process that they (and other Republicans) have lost sight of what their individual and party-wide goals are. Republicans have quickly become their own enemies, routinely bashing each other for not being conservative enough, of “giving into the radical liberalism of Barack Obama” (think Ted Cruz), and quite simply for not representing the principles upon which the Republican Party is built.
What they do not realize, however, is that the American public doesn’t know what those principles are anymore.
Gone is the Reagan conservatism that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and so many others claim to admire. Despite the legitimate critiques to be made of his policies, what cannot be disputed is that President Reagan attempted to unite the country around his vision and used his conservatism as a medium through which he could relate to everyday Americans. Ask anyone over the age of 40 what they remember about Ronald Reagan; they won’t articulate their disagreement with or support for his supply-side economic policies or his immense, and seemingly inexplicable, defense spending. Rather, they’ll reminisce of a grandfather-like figure with a wry smile who calmly and smoothly made jokes at his own expense and boldly proclaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Republican anti-establishment rhetoric started out as just that — words. Words that right-wing politicians looking to make names for themselves used to galvanize a small sect of the party without expecting popular support. However, after the 2010 Tea Party takeover of Republican congressional seats, the anti-establishment wing’s encouragement of government hate and inaction has become the new expectation of Republicans. And many Republicans have been unable to keep pace with this shift. Thus, there is a fissure within the party–a divide between the pragmatists who still seek to compromise and have substantive dialogue and the ideologues who wish to stifle governance to prove a point.
Take Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, for example. Both Florida conservatives, they pride themselves on staunch conservatism and unwavering opposition to Barack Obama. Governor Bush, however, has thus far had one of the most unexpectedly disappointing primary campaigns in recent history. He is undoubtedly a conservative Republican; he promises to cut taxes, hopes to reduce the size and scope of the government, and frequently blames the failures of the country on Democrats and liberal policies. Yet, his last name alone entrenches him so deeply within the Republican establishment that he has been unable to attract voters who might have once flocked to him in droves.
Although Senator Rubio shares many of Bush’s positions, he touts himself as an outsider and frequently disparages Republican leadership. In answering a question regarding his poor attendance in Senate votes during the CNBC GOP Debate, he attacked, “That’s exactly what the Republican establishment says…Why don’t you wait in line?” His inflammatory rhetoric seems to be working, further signalling the rhetorical shift within the party. He comes in at third in most major national polls, behind Donald Trump and Ben Carson, but his biggest win thus far came just this week as reported by The New York Times. Paul Singer, an influential investor and donor courted by numerous GOP candidates announced his decision to support Rubio, praising him as “an informed and assertive decision-maker.” The significance of a major donor’s choice to back a candidate who refuses to be associated with Republican leadership cannot be overstated, for it signals that divisive rhetoric and attacks on the establishment will continue as long as they are rewarded.
The chaos and uncertainty within Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, is another cause for concern within the Republican Party. John Boehner’s ousting from the speakership and Kevin McCarthy’s subsequent failure to succeed him have been viewed as victories for the right wing, but they place the party in uncharted waters. In the wake of Paul Ryan’s ascension to the speakership, the more moderate Republican leadership will have a difficult time compromising with its increasingly anti-establishment caucus. Gaining the support of the far right as the nominee for speaker proved rather difficult for Ryan, indicating that negotiating legislation will be gruesome. Finding common ground with the other side will become even more difficult as representatives will be wary of being viewed as not conservative enough by the party and by their constituents.
At least from a campaign perspective, this all sounds great for Democrats, right? Political commentators and media pundits alike have claimed that the tumult and chaos within the Republican party may make the more placid Democratic primary candidates increasingly attractive. In my classes and discussions with fellow Swarthmore students, I have gotten the sense that many at Swarthmore perceive the disorder in the Republican Party to be reflective of a change in the political landscape. Being outspokenly liberal, many seem to believe that this chaos highlights what they already knew — that the views and beliefs of the GOP are simply wrong for the country. They also hope and believe that seeing Republicans’ inability to articulate a clear message will convince the country to support Democrats and more progressive ideas. Students at Swarthmore and the pundits are right in this: the Democrats seem like the adults. And what comes across as maturity might even win them the White House in 2016. But what then?
The truth of the matter is that, to address the country’s problems, the United States needs Republicans. This may not be a popular opinion here at Swarthmore, where complaints against Republicans and conservatism are more common, but politics goes beyond campaigning. There is actual governance that must be done. Even if Democrats take the White House in 2016, even if we have a President Clinton or President Sanders, it is unlikely that Democrats will take back Congress. Republicans will still make up a majority in Congress and have a commanding majority in many state governments. Additionally, more Americans still identify as conservative as opposed to liberal, 38% to 24% according to Gallup, a radical departure from ideologies at Swarthmore.
In order to govern and effect the change that is sought by members of both parties–tax reform, campaign finance reform, entitlement reform–Republicans must be willing and able to negotiate. They must begin the process of healing the divide within the party, for as long as they do not, the problems facing the country will remain.