It is the second anxiety that animates an unease among some progressives about anti-Trump Republicans and conservatives. This has fostered a limited but vocal backlash against the idea that John Kasich, the Republican former Ohio governor, might address the scaled-back Democratic National Convention on behalf of presumptive nominee Joe Biden.
The easy answer to this apprehension is to say that if you believe (as I certainly do) that defeating President Trump is the prerequisite for anything good happening again in American politics, you should welcome everyone willing to help get the job done. And in light of Trump’s threats to challenge the results if he loses, the health of our democracy may depend on Biden’s winning by a landslide that would leave not a smidgen of doubt about what the voters were saying. This is an all-hands-on-deck proposition.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves: If the race tightens, the Republican converts could be essential to getting Biden over the line.
Finally, for a progressive program to have any chance in Congress, the Democrats will have to take over the Senate. The bigger Biden’s margin, the better the chances of this happening.
I believe all this. Yet don’t dismiss progressives who worry that some among the anti-Trump Republicans would like Biden to win but be hobbled by a Republican Senate and thus rendered powerless to do anything of importance.
I share the deep frustration of the convert-skeptics with a Republican Party that in the past used some of the very themes that propelled Trump to power (on immigration and race especially) to win majorities on behalf of a corporate agenda — and to pack the courts with conservatives who will continue to foil progressive advances on voting rights, political reform and economic regulation.
To these progressives, I’d argue that the point of this election, besides defeating Trump, is to shift the country’s political dynamic as decisively in their direction as Ronald Reagan did toward conservatives in 1980. And doing so requires not only welcoming new partners, but also nurturing their second thoughts about a conservative project to which many of them dedicated their lives.
As a practical matter, Reagan won because a majority of the electorate was upset over the state of the economy and frustrated by the ongoing Iran hostage crisis. But he pulled politics and the intellectual center of gravity to the right by splitting the old New Deal alignment. Neoconservatives, after all, were disillusioned liberal intellectuals, and Reagan Democrats, as the phrase itself suggests, were once supporters of FDR and JFK.
Now, a similar opportunity beckons the left and center-left.
Yes, some Biden Republicans just want to beat Trump and then get back to business as usual. (I still welcome their votes and appreciate their moral revulsion over what my Post colleague George F. Will recently called a “gangster regime.”)
But others are angry at the entire GOP. They are willing to acknowledge, in the wake of the Trump follies and the pandemic, that endless rounds of tax cuts for the wealthy and knee-jerk deregulation have damaged our society. Many of them accept that we need a new and far more equitable social contract. See, for example, the rebellious libertarians at the Niskanen Center. The think tank’s scholars are not as social-democratic as I’d wish them to be, but they have broken decisively with conservative shibboleths.
This, by the way, is why I have a soft spot for Kasich despite my disagreements with him on many matters, including his (fortunately failed) union-busting efforts in Ohio.
In 2013, Kasich broke with Republicans in his legislature to fight for the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. He argued that a person would ultimately be judged by “what you did for the poor.” A devout Christian, he didn’t talk much about his faith when he campaigned for president in 2016 because, he explained, he didn’t want to “cheapen the brand of God.” Would that more of Trump’s religious apologists pondered this.
That Trump and Trumpism create a national emergency is reason enough to pitch a very big tent. But this election could also open the way for a durable shift in the nation’s dominant public philosophy toward social decency and greater equality. A transformation of that sort requires the witness of converts.