Washington Wednesday – The future of the GOP

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 25th of November, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: the future of the Republican Party.

Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president in 2016 as an outsider. He was so different that nobody expected him to appeal to traditional conservative voters. But he did. And four years later, he has completely remade the Republican Party in his image.

REICHARD: The question now is, will the GOP continue to be the party of Trump? House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California says absolutely.

MCCARTHY: The president, regardless of whether he’s president again, or citizen Trump, I think he will continue to play a part in this nation. I look at the number of members who got elected, they got elected under President Trump. The president helped them get elected in the process as well. And we expanded the party. So how is the party going to look different, it’s going to look broader.

EICHER: Well, it is Washington Wednesday. And joining us now to talk about the state of the GOP is our old friend Henry Olsen. He’s a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a columnist for The Washington Post.

It’s been awhile. Welcome back!

HENRY OLSEN, GUEST: Thanks for having me back.

EICHER: President Trump appealed to working-class voters in a way no Republican since Ronald Reagan has been able to do. And the positions he took to do that—big spending, and protectionist trade policies—are a departure from what we’ve understood as small-government Republicanism. Is this the future of the Republican Party?

OLSEN: I think that something like that has to be the future, that the Republican Party cannot be a conservative party if it does not add new members. And it cannot be a conservative party by adding more members of the upper classes, because the upper classes increasingly embrace social liberalism and that is inconsistent with the party whose electoral base are social conservatives. So, the key has always been to find people who are either social conservatives but economic moderates. Or people who are economic moderates who are indifferent to social issues. And that is exactly what Donald Trump did in his 2016 and 2020 campaigns. I think he’s showing, also, that there are a number of non-white voters who will respond to precisely that mix and expand the Republican base while maintaining its genuine, conservative nature.

EICHER: In 2017, you wrote a book called The Working Class Republican. And in it you argue that Ronald Reagan was an FDR Conservative. By that you mean that his policies more closely aligned with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal than people realize. And you urge the GOP to rediscover and return to the basic elements of that vision.

Unpack that a little bit and then talk about how that could factor into the crossroads the party finds itself in now.

OLSEN: Yeah, by that what I meant was that FDR—as understood by the American public—was somebody who wanted to reform not transform American government. And what FDR did was establish government action to help individuals in need as a legitimate feature of daily government. And before FDR that was a disputed question and certainly where it was undisputed was embraced in a limited way after FDR. It is much clearer that that’s what Americans want and expect. Many conservatives continue to reject that idea. They want to return to pre-FDR world where the federal government is extremely limited in what it does and the state governments are much more limited. But that’s not where the American public is. And what Ronald Reagan understood was that he could move America toward more freedom and liberty by not disputing the premise and interpreting the details. And Donald Trump effectively did the same thing. A wise Republican Party would do the same thing and understand that by not fighting theoretical battles that it can’t win, it can win political battles that it can and actually enhance the cause of freedom.

EICHER: Let’s talk about conservative social issues. There have been calls for the party to stop emphasizing issues like abortion and focus more on economic issues. But President Trump didn’t really do that. He embraced issues important to social conservatives, especially evangelicals. How do you think that will factor into the future of the party?

OLSEN: I think it depends on what you mean by social conservatism. If social conservative is code for Christian triumphalism, then that’s a bad way to go. Increasingly Americans are not weekly church congregants in an orthodox Christian church. If what it means is focusing on life, faith, and family—giving freedom for faith and focusing on protecting life and family structure—then you’ll see that actually a majority of Americans are sympathetic to social conservatism and that’s something that Donald Trump demonstrated. 

The number of people who are economically conservative and socially liberal are politically inconsequential and Republicans have fallen prey to exaggerating this number of people in the electorate and try to chase the will of the whisk. When, in fact, there is a much larger number of people who could be relied on who are economically moderate and socially moderately conservative. Going in that direction is what Donald Trump did. And had he been more circumspect in his personality and the way in which he engaged in public issues, he would have easily won the election. The next Republican president will be and could easily also win election.

EICHER: My definition of social conservatism is toward the latter and not the former. And I encapsulate that into a single word: judges. And Trump didn’t shy away from that. And that’s what I meant to get at.

OLSEN: Yeah, I mean, it’s important, though, to understand that as the nomination of Judge Roy Moore in Alabama demonstrates there are elements within social conservatism for whom some form of Christian theology or Christian supremacy is not far from the surface. And that’s not the direction that — freedom for religion but not the domination of a particular religious creed is the direction that social conservatism finds its sweet spot. And if you move in that direction, you in fact find many people who are non-Christians or non-believers agreeing with many elements of social conservatism and it’s not a loser, as expressed in that direction. It’s actually quite a winner.

EICHER: Absolutely. And I think the Republican Party of Alabama would agree with that, moving on from Roy Moore as it did … and going with Tommy Tuberville and winning back that Senate seat. But speaking of the Senate … it’ll be January before we know who will control the Senate going forward. Even if they retain a very slim Senate majority, Republicans will no longer be in the driver’s seat when it comes to policy. But doesn’t that make it a bit easier for the GOP to reinvent itself in the policy wilderness … 

OLSEN: It’s always easier to reinvent when you’re in the wilderness because you don’t have the big dog in the Oval Office to take on. Whenever somebody occupies the Oval Office, they are the agenda-setter for American political discussion. We will see many people who will be competing for what I think is the rational way forward, which is the interpreter of Trump, not the slavish follower of Trump. And then you’ll have people who will obviously disagree with that. But there are people within the Republican Party who would like to return to the pre-Trump days and don’t want these sorts of unorthodox viewpoints gaining deep roots. That’s much easier to do out of power than in power. I suspect that what you’ll see in Congress is opposition to many Biden administration initiatives. Certainly they have a block on anything serious going through Congress, as long as they maintain control of the Senate. And we’ll hopefully also see some attempts at reasonable moderation in working with the Biden administration to demonstrate to suburban moderates and moderately conservative voters that the GOP can be trusted in power. It doesn’t take much to gain in those areas for the GOP to move into a majority status. And that should be what congressional leaders are hoping to do.

EICHER: President Trump effectively became the Republican Party platform for the last four years. Do you think the party will wait for someone to fill that vacuum, in effect letting the leader drive the policy? Or do you get the sense that there’s momentum now to rebuild the platform and let that propel the next leader forward?

OLSEN: There’ll be a dispute within the party. I don’t think that there will be a unified House and Senate alternative. That’s not the way Senate Majority Leader McConnell operates. I like to use a chess analogy: he likes to play black not white. Having a platform means that you’re taking the first move. Playing black means that you’re reacting. He’s a superb tactician at playing black and he doesn’t like to be the person who steps out front. In reality, in American politics, the presidential nominee always sets the agenda, no matter what the agenda had been set by a congressional minority previously. And while there will likely be some sort of alternative that maybe the House Republicans will present, it won’t be the dominating factor. This battle is going to be fought out in the party. Over the next four years there will be many alternatives. There will be no uniform alternative that is presented prior to the presidential primaries in 2024 and the winner will hold the upper hand in determining what the platform is going to be.

EICHER: Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a columnist for The Washington Post. Henry, good to talk with you. Thanks so much.

OLSEN: Thank you.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, FILE) President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally at Fayetteville Regional Airport, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in Fayetteville, N.C. 

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