Republicans suffered a historic defeat in the 2018 election, losing a net of 40 seats in the House, six governorships, hundreds of state legislative seats and six state legislative chambers. Yet as the New York Times reports, if you were viewing from the outside, you’d think they were convinced that everything is fine and dandy:
Yet nearly a month after the election, there has been little self-examination among Republicans about why a midterm that had seemed at least competitive became a rout.
President Trump has brushed aside questions about the loss of the chamber entirely, ridiculing losing incumbents by name, while continuing to demand Congress fund a border wall despite his party losing many of their most diverse districts. Unlike their Democratic counterparts, Republicans swiftly elevated their existing slate of leaders with little debate, signaling a continuation of their existing political strategy.
And neither Speaker Paul D. Ryan nor Representative Kevin McCarthy, the incoming minority leader, have stepped forward to confront why the party’s once-loyal base of suburban supporters abandoned it — and what can be done to win them back.
I’m sure there are liberals who would look at this and say, “Ha ha, what a bunch of dopes.” But I have some sympathy for the quandary Republicans find themselves in, because even if they wanted to change course to appeal to a broader electorate in a country that grows more diverse by the day — and some of them do — it’s almost impossible for them to do so. They’re trapped.
The first reason is that parties are not dictatorships, where someone can just decide that a new approach is needed and then implement it. There are a variety of different people and forces within the party — politicians, interest groups that make up the coalition, the voters themselves — that each have their own ideas and incentives, and may be pulling in different directions. As we’ve seen with the GOP’s struggles on immigration over the last decade or so, the party’s leaders can have a clear idea about where they want to go but be overruled by voters who don’t buy in.
When parties do change, furthermore, it usually happens as the result of a process that plays out over years. The best recent example is what happened in the Democratic Party in the 1980s and 1990s. After Walter Mondale’s defeat in the 1984 presidential election, a group of centrists decided that the party had become too liberal and too complacent, and mounted an effort, centered around the Democratic Leadership Council, to pull it rightward. The centrists spent the next few years making political and policy arguments to their fellow Democrats about why their party couldn’t win if it didn’t change, especially on issues such as crime and welfare to signal to voters that Democrats could be “tough,” particularly on poor people and racial minorities. It may be hard to remember now, but at the time it seemed that Republicans had a lock on the White House; by the time President George H.W. Bush’s term was over, the GOP had controlled the executive branch for 20 of the previous 24 years.
In 1992, the DLC claimed victory when one of its former chairmen, Bill Clinton, became president and went on to initiate much of its “third way” agenda. But nothing about that was inevitable. Clinton was an unusually talented politician who also had the good fortune of running against an incumbent in the wake of a recession. Had circumstances been different — a more charismatic liberal who won the 1992 nomination, for instance — the centrists might have lost the debate within the party.
Circumstance is important in other ways, too. Most of the time, parties don’t have to change after a defeat; all they have to do is wait for circumstances to change. For instance, in 2008 the Republicans suffered terrible losses: Not only was Barack Obama elected president, but also they lost a net of 21 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. They didn’t respond with some kind of ideological reorientation; instead, they just worked to get their base as angry as possible at Obama, which led them to a huge victory and a retaking of the House just two years later.
So it wouldn’t be completely crazy for Republicans to look around and say they’re actually doing pretty well, all things considered, and they just need to be patient. But even for those who don’t agree, there’s not much in the way of an organized force promoting their side of the argument. Have you heard of the Republican Main Street Partnership? Probably not.
That’s one of the biggest reasons why a genuine change of course is so hard for Republicans: As a result not only of the recent intensification of polarization but also trends in party membership dating back to the post-civil rights realignment that began in the 1960s, there just aren’t many moderates left in the party to make the case. And the typical Republican in Congress represents a deeply conservative district or state, where the only thing they fear is a primary challenge from their right.
After the 2018 election that’s even more true than it was before. Many of the members from swing districts were defeated, leaving the remaining caucus more conservative and less interested in a move to the center. Their voters are also under the influence of an immensely powerful conservative media apparatus whose business model depends on stoking rage and resentment, which further prevents moderates from gaining a foothold.
Finally, there’s one gigantic reason Republicans can’t change course: Donald J. Trump. The party is inevitably defined by the president, and this president believes that the only path to political success is feeding the angriest instincts of his base. That’s what he did in 2016, that’s what he did in 2018, and that’s what he’s going to do in 2020. You might have Republican candidates for other offices who try to run more moderate campaigns, but their message will be overwhelmed by what’s coming from the White House.
So for at least the next two years, the GOP is going to be exactly what it is now: a party devoted to the interests of the wealthy and large corporations, animated by xenophobia, gripped by climate denial and committed to the maintenance of political division. It might become something else someday, but it certainly won’t in the near future.