The US and the GOP are at watershed moments in history in the 2016 election. The political system is grinding to a halt under the weight of cronyism and, like the emperor’s new clothes, for the first time everyone knows what is going on. And for the first time, all the leading candidates in one party agree that things have gone off the rails.
In an earlier era, only a handful of people understood the duplicity behind many, if not most, Congressional votes… and they were largely “in the game.” This epiphany came to the masses when John Kerry, with a straight face, explained a difficult vote by saying “I voted for it before I voted against it.” Few people understood how the GOP and Democrat party establishment would demagogue hot button issues (Republicans on abortion, Democrats on gun control, both sides of protecting jobs and making immigration orderly) with no intention of acting but rather to suck money from their base. As conservatives, we talk smaller government and a simpler tax code but when the rubber meets the road, the vested interests, the plutocrats, don’t agree. Consider, for instance, the inability of Congress to kill that seething sump of fraud, waste, corruption and inefficiency that is the US Export-Import Bank. Look at the highway bill. Or the $1+TRILLION that is going to be passed today.
Today in the New York Times, Ross Douthat — who, in my view is the only opinion writer there who doesn’t act like he’s auditioning for The Onion — lays out a very nice overview of what he thinks the current nomination contest means for the GOP.
Yet the possibility of a real clash of ideas hasn’t gone the way of Paul’s campaign. Instead, if the race came down to the three men currently leading in the national polls, Republican primary voters would be facing their most ideologically consequential choice since 1980. Unlike many G.O.P. campaigns, in which terms like “establishment” and “populist” are mostly about affect and rhetoric, this time the Republican front-runners offer three very different visions for the future of the party.
The first vision is Rubio’s. On domestic policy, his campaign assumes (reasonably) that the party lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential campaigns because Republicans were out of touch with middle-class pocketbook anxieties, and tries to remedy that fault by moving somewhat toward the center on economic policy. Hence his promise of a larger child tax credit, his talk about reinventing higher education, his pledge to reform rather than slash the safety net and his promise of tax credits to help Americans who have benefited from Obamacare to buy health insurance.
Ted Cruz, by contrast, is several ticks to the right on domestic issues, and often closer to Rand Paul; his vision assumes that a more ideological conservatism can carry all before it. His tax plan, which combines a flat tax and a disguised sales tax, would place him well to the right of every recent Republican nominee; he’s attacking Rubio as a squish and sellout on immigration; and his forays on health care and entitlement reform suggest that he’s closer to True Conservative™ orthodoxy on those issues as well.
And then there is Donald Trump. On foreign policy, he can sound like Paul when he condemns both parties for the Iraq war and blames United States intervention for many of the world’s ills, and like Cruz when he promises to put an end to the Islamic State from the skies. On immigration and trade, he’s offering a fortress-America vision that echoes the 1920s and 1930s more than the Reagan-era G.O.P.
But on other domestic issues, he can sound center-left (he’s no religious conservative, he loves eminent domain, he’s made favorable noises about single payer) or even liberal — particularly on entitlements, where he’s argued that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be protected from any kind of restructuring and reform.
This combination of views isn’t incoherent; it just puts Trump closer to Europe’s nationalist right than it does to most of the post-1960s American conservative tradition. Like France’s National Front or euroskeptic parties elsewhere on the Continent, he’s a candidate of government programs for the old and native-born, high walls against outsiders and a romanticized idea of national greatness. And it turns out that this Old World combination, at this particular moment, has a great deal of New World appeal.
Which makes the looming choice a genuinely fraught one for the future of the party. Rubio aspires to be Reagan (with a dash of Bill Clinton-in-1992 thrown in) but risks being another Dubya. Cruz aspires to be Reagan (with a dash of the elder Bush and Richard Nixon) but might be Barry Goldwater in 1964. And then Trump aspires to be no one but himself, a mash-up of Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Silvio Berlusconi — and Jean-Marie Le Pen.
I think the rise of someone like Trump has been inevitable since political blogs started eroding the gatekeeping function of the mainstream media and the 24-hour cable news format started filling empty air time with emptier commentary. And now that he’s broken through, we should probably get used to seeing more of this in the future.
So a vote for Rubio is a vote for adaptation and ambition — for a conservatism that seeks to reassure the anxious middle on domestic policy and shore up the Pax Americana overseas. A vote for Cruz is a vote for rigor and retrenchment — for a more intensely ideological conservatism at home and a narrower definition of the national interest abroad. A vote for Trump is a vote for rupture — for a conservatism defined more by identity politics than ideology, more by nationalism than libertarianism, more by caudillism than the Constitution.
Regardless, the GOP and the nation are at watershed moments in this election. The nation can choose an aging, not-very-sharp, crooked hag — that would be Hillary Clinton — who will double down on all the worst impulses of Obama’s arrogation of power and contempt of civil liberties and combine it with the crony-capitalism and corporatism that is her natural inclination. In short, Hillary Clinton will make the United States Juan Peron’s Argentina but without the hot women and the tango. Or, alternatively, it can take a different track by electing the Republican nominee. Each of the three most likely candidates offers a distinct vision for the nation and that vision is very much at odds with where we are today and with where Clinton would take us.