The Republicans are reliving the Democratic Party's nightmares. The cancelled Donald Trump event of Friday March 11 seemed to presage 1968-style disruptions at political events, but 1968 might not be the right analogy. As the party of tired myth and exhausted agenda, the Republicans of 2016 most closely resemble the Democrats of 1984.
Before he became a hatchet man for the Clintons, Sidney Blumenthal was an acute political observer. As a liberal (but rueful) partisan of the Democratic Party, he left a memorable sketch of that party's debacle in the 1984 presidential election. In essays like “The Passing of the Passé,” Blumenthal produced zingers that should be hauntingly familiar to today's conservatives.
The capital elite's independence led to isolation . . . its haughtiness and presumption led to political ineptitude.
What does this recall but the Republican National Committee's “autopsy” that called on the party to embrace comprehensive immigration reform, and spoke not a word about the party's weaknesses in reaching wage-earners? But it is more than that. The Republican Party's elite did not just stop there. They suborned that party's most promising young politician and helped him destroy his own career by getting him to endorse upfront amnesty and a huge (and hugely unpopular) expansion of low-skill immigration. It was on the behalf of the Republican leadership that a Marco Rubio aide was caught arguing that we needed more guest worker programs because American workers “can't cut it.”
It didn't end there. Just last December, as the Republican Party was being torn apart by a working-class revolt, the Republican-led Congress passed a huge expansion to a low-skill guest worker program. Speaker Paul Ryan is a man of principle but, like many in the contemporary Republican leadership, his principles sometimes differ from those of most of his fellow Republicans and his fellow citizens. In their haughty disregard for the preferences of their own voters, in the presumption that they could sell their own priorities as political prudence, the Republican leadership has demonstrated deep political ineptitude.
It could be called from the deep by ritual, but it could not be sustained . . .
Blumenthal was writing of the FDR coalition of white ethnics and wage-earners (largely unionized). 1984 Democratic nominee Walter Mondale idolized FDR and cast himself as that great Democrat's heir, but he could no longer rouse FDR's coalition. The Great Depression and the foundation of Social Security were too far in the past. The 1984 Democratic agenda was unappealing. Nostalgia was an insufficient basis for holding on to the loyalty of the voters.
What had been the case with FDR's heirs is now the case with Reagan's. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were each, in their own way, a Reagan manqué. Cruz could not shut up about how he was the real conservative in the race. The real Reagan rarely described himself as a conservative. The real Reagan was busy trying to explain why his policies were good for Americans of all political backgrounds. Cruz busied himself with trying to mobilize the most self-consciously ideological sliver of one party.
Marco Rubio spoke of new American centuries, but, as James Poulos pointed out, Rubio's optimism was a faded copy of Reagan's optimism from thirty years ago. Reagan was an old man in tune with his moment. Rubio ran as a young man trying to recapture the mood of a previous generation.
By achieving a consensus in Washington, he believed he had achieved one in the country . . .
The Republican Party of 2016 is less hierarchical than was the Democratic Party of 1984, but there are certain similarities. Mondale understood the Democratic Party as organized interest groups representing slivers of the population. Feminist groups represented women. Labor unions represented workers. If a candidate got the support of the feminist and union lobbies, then that candidate got the support of women and workers and won the election. Mondale learned that it didn't work that way. Women and workers (including unionized workers) had minds of their own.
No Republican-leaning organization could plausibly make the expansive claims of NOW or the AFL-CIO, but Republicans thought they could divide the voters according to the famous three-legged stool of economic conservatives, social conservatives, and national defense conservatives. You offer the economic conservatives tax cuts and promises of smaller government, the social conservatives promises of opposition to abortion, and the national defense conservatives the promise of a strong and engaged America abroad. Rubio and Cruz were both plausible three-legged stool conservatives.
It turned out that, for many Republican voters, the promise of tax cuts (especially tax cuts that primarily went to high-earners) was not enough of an economic agenda. A foreign policy of strength that did not reckon with the disasters of the Bush years proved . . . weak. Large numbers of self-identified evangelicals (though not necessarily church-goers) supported a candidate whose opposition to abortion was perfunctory at best, but who promised to take the fight to culturally aggressive elites. Rubio and Cruz could not achieve a consensus of any of the factions of the right because none of those factions had a consensus anymore.
The Republicans have not finished acting like characters from Sidney Blumenthal's book. This week, it was reported that several senators were pressuring Ted Cruz to apologize to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (for having called McConnell a liar) as a condition of supporting Cruz against Donald Trump. The narcissistic arrogance of it all. The Republicans face the prospect of nominating an utterly opportunistic, authoritarian buffoon, and despite the public's anti-establishment mood, the Republican leadership is demanding demonstrations of submission from the only candidate in position to stop (or at least mitigate) the disaster. This calls to mind Blumenthal:
They [the establishment] retain a unique power: the power to destroy any presidential candidacy they wholeheartedly endorse.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.