Principles, Pragmatism and Populism

After every presidential election, the losing party does a soul-searching “autopsy” on why they failed and from these autopsies come suggestions for future victories.  They become a road map for the losing the party.  In 2012, the losing GOP party came to the conclusion that it was not their politics or their policies, but what the voters heard.  It was the messaging.  As a result, they offered as a solution an outreach to certain demographic groups- mainly the growing Hispanic population.  In 2016, the Democrats did the same soul searching and, unsurprisingly, came to the same conclusions.  Their policies and politics were just fine; the messaging failed.

Both parties base these “findings” primarily on exit polls, anecdotal stories, and focus groups.  Invariably, the Republicans find that the government has engaged in regulatory overreach in some areas and the Democrats find that voters support an increase in the minimum wage.  Unfortunately, as results have demonstrated, these road maps do not always translate into electoral victories.  The reason is that they capture a microcosm of the electorate when they should be capturing a microcosm of the microcosm of the electorate; that is, views of the electorate in the handful of states that count when it comes to the Electoral College.  The Democrats failed in 2016 because the message of Trump in the key states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania carried greater resonance with the voters than that of the Democrats.

Paul Ryan had previously suggested that for the GOP to get consistent wins, they must compete for every vote.  The Party must be more responsible, responsive to the voters, portray a positive message, and be more inclusive.  In effect, the GOP had to shed the specter of the “party of no.”  On issues of poverty and immigration, the Republican Party has a winning message that, unfortunately, has the face of the old Republican guard.  Where the GOP tops the Democrats is the number of new, fresher, younger faces to extol the virtues of conservative principles.  Just think of all the old names being bandied about for 2020 for the Democrats- Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren.  These are no spring chickens.  The younger names suggested have virtually zero chance… even against Trump.

A winning strategy for Republican electoral victories is to highlight the inefficiencies of a large government and how that government infringes on our rights.  If we cannot win the minds of the electorate because the Left has their claws in the minds of it through academia and the media, then an appeal to the heart can be a big antidote.  Some have suggested that being anti-immigrant, anti-government, or anti-anything will not win votes.  Instead, the strategy should be one of showing how every legal American can achieve the American dream which is predicated upon the freedom and opportunity to prosper and achieve.

What is happening now in the GOP lays at the feet of President Trump.  The worst insult he could hurl is that of being “a loser.”  His was a victory at any cost.  The jettison of principle for pragmatic victory is having the effect of driving away a voter base the GOP relied upon previously.  Look at the areas where the GOP should be showing victory- the fiscal areas.  Trump and the GOP have had, besides rolling back some regulations (a laudable act), very few if any victories.  Instead, Trump has continuously weighed into the social areas.

By doing this, and his support for social conservatism to a certain degree, he has framed the issues as the Democrats ignoring or tearing down and dismissing traditional values.  Hence, the GOP of Trump is being portrayed as the defender of traditional moral values.  From the standpoint of the Party, that is not such a bad thing especially since there are precious few Republicans willing to step forward and do so fearing they are on the wrong side of some polling data.

So Trump had a winning strategy against a now-proven weak opponent despite how many popular votes she received.  But where the trouble lies is that a winning strategy, to be sustained in the long term, must start with principles.  Those principles start with a basic question: “What does the Party believe in?”  And one ventures that if you were to poll Republicans, you would get different answers today.  Are we the party of social conservatism, of fiscal responsibility, of government efficiency?  Or are we the party that bases our policies on the principles of individual rights, of self-reliance, of limited government, of a healthy respect for the Constitution, of local and state rights, and of independence?  These latter values are what once defined conservatism vis-a-vis the Republican Party.

The last time the Republican Party nominated a true conservative grounded in principle was 1980 with Ronald Reagan.  Since then, they have nominated a string of moderates.  In that time frame, they have lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections.

Principles endure.  They do not change with the times.  They can be consistently applied to a variety of situations and policies.  Principles may, at times, get in the way of specific policy proposals, especially in large bills, but it is better to wage the principled fight rather than the pragmatic fight lest one lose sight of their principles in the first place.  Considering that even though the Republican Party now controls the Senate, House and White House, their failure to get anything done proves that this internecine warfare between pragmatism and principle is making the Party inconsequential.

Republicans would be well-reminded to analyze any policy or legislation in light of six guiding principles:

  1. Less government;
  2. Lower taxes;
  3. Personal responsibility;
  4. Individual freedom;
  5. Stronger families, and;
  6. Domestic tranquility and national defense.

So where does Trump fit in?  From this writer’s view, Trump is not truly grounded in a guiding set of principles as his history shows and at his age it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks.  As such, Trump may have been the right person at the right time who won under the right set of circumstances.  Lest we forget, his electoral vote victory- the only one that counts- was predicated on victories in three states that, with a very few voter defections, could go the other way in 2020.  He rode a wave of populism into the White House, but the history of populism in the United States is not great from an electoral standpoint.

Hence, it is incumbent upon Republicans, if Trump is to wear an “R” after his name, and more importantly principled conservatives to articulate those principles, follow through on them, and force the occupant of the White House to do the same.

Otherwise, the Republican Party and, by proxy, conservatism will find itself in the wilderness searching for reasons they lost yet again.  Populism is transitory.  Pragmatism is elusive.  Principles endure.

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