Not that most Republicans have had their minds changed by this crisis. They’ve gone along with a few trillion dollars in spending, but they’re hardly agreeing that we actually could use universal health coverage and automatic stabilizers that offer quick help to people in any economic downturn.
And they’ll be more than happy to begin deficit fearmongering as an excuse for austerity at the earliest opportunity — i.e., if there’s a Democrat in the White House to suffer the consequences. “As soon as the economy recovers, we are going to need significant deficit reforms,” one conservative economist told The Post. You may recall that even before the pandemic, Trump and Republicans had pushed the deficit past a trillion dollars, with only the most muted objections from conservatives. Should Trump be reelected, all those who claim to be deeply concerned about the debt will say that we really should do something about it — but not quite yet, not when cutting spending or raising taxes might be too damaging to a Republican president.
But what if Trump loses? How will the party understand what happened and where they should go?
There will be two competing narratives among Republicans, which come down to this question: Was it him, or was it us? Was Trump just an anomaly, and therefore we don’t need to change much of what we’ve been doing? Or do we need to rethink the policies we’ve been offering the public?
As Politico reports, a relatively small group of Washington Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley, are trying to fashion a new kind of bigger-government conservatism that is more willing to intervene in the economy (Rubio, who chairs the Small Business Committee, helped craft the Paycheck Protection Program in the economic rescue package). One of its goals would be to convince voters that the GOP doesn’t want to just leave everyone at the mercy of an economy defined by increasing inequality and occasional catastrophe, but can help create prosperity with something other than tax cuts for the wealthy.
And there seems to be an awareness among at least some Republicans that, politically, the worst thing they could do right now is give free rein to their laissez-faire impulses. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell advocated letting states go bankrupt rather than give them the help they need to avoid making this recession worse, a number of Republicans pushed back on the idea, taking the position that we need to keep state budgets from imploding.
It’s too early to tell where Senate Republicans will end up on the next rescue bill, and whether it will include aid to states (and how much). But the safest bet is that once this crisis has passed, they’ll treat the whole thing like a vaguely remembered dream that need not affect long-term policy. What happens in a pandemic/recession stays in a pandemic/recession.
If Trump loses, every Republican will have an incentive to perform their own now-more-than-everism, because that will absolve them of both responsibility and the need to alter their views. We lost that election, they’ll say, because Trump was such a uniquely problematic figure, someone who alienated so many voters and then had the bad luck to be confronted with a crisis he was incapable of managing. All we need to do is rerun the playbook from the Obama years: Oppose everything President Biden tries to do, attempt to impose austerity policies that hamstring the recovery, whip up anger in our base and reap the political rewards.
Which might work, or it might not. It will, however, be much easier — both practically and psychologically — than admitting that what the party has been advocating has been wrong, and trying to come up with a different program to sell.
We’ve seen this kind of struggle before. After they lost 2012, Republicans commissioned a report that warned that if the party didn’t craft “a more welcoming conservatism” and make itself appealing to young people and Latinos, it risked a steady slide into minority status. Then Donald Trump came along with the insight that being welcoming was the last thing the party’s base wanted.
One of the casualties of Trump’s rise was Rubio, who tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, then found himself vilified for it on the right. The same thing might happen to him again if he runs for president in 2024.
Or it could be that his timing would be better the second time around. Perhaps there will be an appetite for a less hard-edge, anti-immigrant form of conservatism. Perhaps someone like Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland currently enjoying sky-high approval ratings in his heavily Democratic state, will make a compelling case for the party to nominate a moderate. Perhaps, if Trump loses in 2020, the party will be so eager to rid themselves of his stench that they’ll be willing to rethink everything they’ve been doing.
It’s possible. But I wouldn’t bet on it.