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The Inconclusive GOP ‘Autopsy’

Donald Trump's campaign and victory short-circuited the demographic self-examination that the Republican Party needs to ensure it has a future after Trump’s gone.

Immediate source: Free Clip Art. Original source: William Dwight Whitney The Century Dictionary: An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language (New York, NY: The Century Co., 1911)

Nothing blunts the inconvenient discomfort of failure like the narcotic of success. Achieving victory has a way of obscuring the pre-existing conditions that could have otherwise led to defeat. The Republican Party avoided defeat in 2016, but the GOP had fundamental, deeply structural problems brewing long before the 2016 election. Those problems didn’t vanish when Donald Trump raised his right hand in January.

Some of those problems surfaced March 24, after the collapse of the American Health Care Act, the presumptive successor to Obamacare. When House Trump was forced to pull the bill before it reached the floor of the House of Representatives, it was a humiliation Trump blamed on the House Freedom Caucus, a group of hardline conservatives who opposed the bill on the merits.

It came to a head on March 30th when Trump tweeted a flat-out threat to members of his own party, one that has some calling it the first volleys of “civil war”: “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”

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“Defeat on the floor dealt Trump a major blow early in his presidency, but its implications were far more serious for the Republican Party as a whole,” wrote Russell Berman at The Atlantic. “Handed unified control of the federal government for only the third time since World War II, the modern GOP was unable to overcome its internecine fights to enact a key part of its policy agenda.”

Political infighting within the GOP’s ranks is nothing new; the Tea Party was the direct product of internal squabbling in the wake of the 2008 election. This speaks to something more foundationally ... wrong with the Republican world view. A punitive streak runs through it, a harsh, unforgiving, gleefully uncharitable aspect that’s gone a long way in recent decades, and certainly in recent years, to define the Republican identity, not only to Americans but to the world at large.

The fact that that rigidity has turned inward is par for the course. It comes from the longtime Republican orthodoxy that everyone under that not-so-big tent read from the same page of the hymnal at the same time, at all times. This obsession with uniformity and grievance has been distilled, for years now, in that needlepoint-ready saying meant to convey the GOP mindset: “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line.”

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The modern Republican identity takes many of its behavioral and philosophical cues from what Republicans stand against, from what they oppose, rather than what they stand for and support. We know this is true in real-world terms when we look back at the Trump presidential campaign, which tapped into a nativist vein of support that terrified the nation, and surprised many in the GOP.

Florida Rep. Tom Rooney said as much to Berman, in The Atlantic. “I’ve been in this job eight years, and I’m wracking my brain to think of one thing our party has done that’s been something positive, that’s been something other than stopping something else from happening. We need to start having victories as a party. And if we can’t, then it’s hard to justify why we should be back here.”

Trump pledged to do everything he could to undo the gains and initiatives of the Obama White House — not realizing (or caring) that exerting that kind of energy is a tacit validation of how effective his predecessor was.

Rather than defining himself on his own terms, Trump derived much of his populist momentum on the campaign trail by letting the nation know how much unlike Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton he would be as president. He was a candidate who for 17 months defined himself largely by what he was not. The nation was invited to endorse the agenda of that candidate. In November, a lot of the nation did just that.

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Not so long ago the Republicans appeared to be ready to address that baseline negative affect in a meaningful way. Not surprisingly, it came after another drubbing at the polls. Mitt Romney got flattened in his 2012 presidential bid, giving President Obama his second term in a contest that was never as close as some in the punditocracy professed. That’s when the GOP leadership, with much gnashing of teeth, began its walk in the wilderness, ushering in the so-called “autopsy,” that collective word for the various self-examinations, official and cultural, into what kept going wrong with Republican politics and the Republican brand.

Conservative thought leaders and politicians suited up for the suddenly fashionable self-reflection that appeared to be at least outwardly under way. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal had the marquee quotes on the matter in January 2013, at the Republican National Committee Winter Meeting in Charlotte, N.C.

“We’ve got to stop being the stupid party,” he said. “I’m serious. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults ... We’ve got to stop insulting the intelligence of voters. We need to trust the smarts of the American people.”

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They got off to a good start. A retreat GOP leaders held that month had panel discussions that focused on outreach to minorities and women. Even the branding on the GOP web site included images of Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, and two prominent African Americans: Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke and famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

But as Obama solidified his second-term agenda, one that coalesced to great degree around the emerging success of the Affordable Care Act, Republican identity hardened again, this time around the need to dismantle the ACA, Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

And that animus toward Obama never moderated; on the contrary, Republicans have tried at least 60 times to repeal Obamacare since 2011. “Total and permanent opposition to the law would become the absolute touchstone of Republican loyalty,” writes David Frum in The Atlantic. Trump took that ball of resentment, and another one marked “Immigration,” and ran with them into the White House.

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Frum took conservatives to task for everything that led up to the Trump health-care debacle on March 24. But he could have been speaking generally about what Republicans need to do in the wake of that inconclusive autopsy in 2012: “Consider the destructive effect of ideological conformity, of ignorance of the experience of comparable countries, and of a conservative political culture that incentivizes intransigence, radicalism, and anger over prudence, moderation, and compassion.”

In American politics, a victory, even an unexpected one, makes it hard to believe there’s anything wrong, in your campaign or your party. The thousand-candlepower glow of a win in November — one that ushered in a historic Republican majority in both chambers — has blinded the GOP to the need to come to grips with changes it needed to make as a party, at every meaningful level, before the Trump juggernaut even got started.

That victory in November made it easy to ignore the need for a road-to-Damascus moment. Now it looks more like a frontage-road-to-Mar-a-Lago moment. But if everything’s different, everything’s exactly the way it was; the changes the Republican Party needed to make five years ago haven’t gone anywhere.

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The campaign and the victory of Donald Trump short-circuited the demographic self-examination the GOP needs to ensure a more expansive future after Trump. It matters: Despite the seismic shock of November, the party remains one at odds with itself, one with declining numbers of the older white Americans it existentially relies on, a party whose rightward tilt alienates it from the broader, younger base it needs to survive.

In 2013, Jindal cautioned against the GOP becoming “the stupid party.” Since then, to go by one lawmaker’s reaction, not much has changed. Or at least not enough.

“We have to do some soul-searching internally to determine whether or not we are even capable of functioning as a governing body,” North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer, told The New York Times on March 24. “If ‘no’ is your goal, it’s the easiest goal in the world to reach.” 

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