Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Trump, Buchanan, and Populist Pressures

In the lead-up to Donald Trump's victory in the New Hampshire primary tonight, some pundits have drawn parallels between Trump's candidacy and other populist insurgencies, including Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 and Pat Buchanan in the 1996 primary. However, Trump won New Hampshire by a much bigger margin than Buchanan did in 1996.

Moreover, even if Trump only does replicate the Buchanan coalition (and there's considerable evidence he'll be able to go beyond this), it would be a mistake to dismiss the Trump phenomenon with a shrug. Whether or not one agrees with the policies of Buchanan and Perot, the fact remains that the Republican party has struggled to forge a national presidential majority coalition since Perot's 1992 insurgency. The rise of Perot, Buchanan, and Trump point to deep structural risks and opportunities for the Republican presidential coalition.

Within the adult lifetime of the average American, the GOP presidential candidate has won a popular vote majority only once--in 2004--and that skin-of-your-teeth victory is likely at least partially because of a weak Democratic nominee. To note this poor performance is not to besmirch the skills of GOP political handlers, many of whom are cunning tacticians. But the structure of presidential politics--the so-called "Blue Wall"--has shifted so much against Republicans that, in order to win with the current coalition, a GOP nominee has to do everything right. Since 1992, Democrats have been able to afford losing a few major swing states; Republicans have not enjoyed that luxury. In six elections in a row, the GOP has failed to get a popular-vote victory margin of above 3 percent, an unprecedented sequence for the party; Democrats enjoyed a similar period in the desert in between the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. Democrats have been able to win big, but Republicans have struggled to win at all.

Since 1992, Republicans have enjoyed much more support at the state and federal level. Part of this is perhaps because of Democratic success in presidential contests--GOP gains in 1994, 2010, and 2014 were in part reactions against Democratic presidents. These congressional and state-level victories can also be attributed to the fact that these races are diffuse. Congressional Republicans do not run on one slate of policies, but each candidate can calibrate his or her message to a local electorate. That's not been the case in presidential races, however; a presidential candidate can only run on a single set of policies.

In recent years, reformers and conservative populists have called for the party to expand its appeal to the working class and the economic middle. Economic stagnation, a weakening middle class, radical identity politics, and growing socioeconomic stratification do not bode well for the future of limited-government conservatism. With imagination and policy reform, Republicans can adapt to these challenges.

Populist energies have transformed both the Republican and Democratic primaries this year, and, by responsibly channeling these energies, the GOP can reap major electoral dividends. Such a channeling will not mean succumbing to angry chest-beating: it will require approaching the topics inflaming populist sentiment with realism, empathy, and policy sophistication. By offering reforms on trade, immigration, health-care, taxes, and other issues, Republicans can put forward policies that could improve outcomes for many working and aspiring American families.

Dis-Trumption is a sign of tensions in the GOP coalition, but it could also be the birth-pangs of a re-energized GOP and forward-looking conservatism. If Republicans rise to the challenges of this populist insurgency, they can champion policies that offer economic uplift and social renewal. Other Republican contenders who want to supplant Trump as well as activists who want to win in November would be wise to think about how to address some of the very real challenges facing the American people.

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