As someone who’s dedicated more than a little time to pontificating about how conservatives need to change up their economic and social messages to be competitive in the future, the 2016 Republican wave was a shock for me. It’s forcing me to reconsider a lot of what I thought before the election. Nowadays, the market for reformish ideas on the center-right would appear to be slimmer than it was on Nov. 7th.
With Donald Trump in the White House and Republican majorities in the House, the Senate and the statehouses, many will come to the conclusion that Republicans won this election because of their ideas and innate appeal among the electorate. By that line of thinking, the new Republican majority, led by Trump, Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will more likely than not believe they have a mandate to do what they’ve been promising to do — roll back government regulations and transfer programs, cut taxes on the rich and on corporations, repeal and replace Obamacare and more. The conservative agenda post-Obama has been articulated throughout the Obama presidency, and it will now get its day in the sun.
I don’t particularly like this agenda, and of course I have my own 10-point plan for GOP policy reform I’d be pushing if I were in any place to push it. But my own personal preferences are not my only reservation with the current GOP majority’s agenda.
The big thing is, there’s a lot of room for policy overreach on the Ryan-McConnell side, and a lot of room for buffoonery and incompetence on the Trump side. The last time an incompetent Republican President and supply-side Republican Congress tried to slash the safety net, cut back critical sector regulations and lower taxes on the very wealthy was back under President Bush, and the experiment did not go well — most of the plans failed, and the Republicans lost Congress shortly thereafter. There’s no reason to expect, should the GOP push through such an agenda now, that the same won’t happen again.
I fully expect the GOP — the Ryan-McConnell side, at least — to overplay their policy hand, sensing a mandate that isn’t there. If that happens, it’ll get a well-deserved whooping from the Democrats in 2018 and 2020, the big question being what the now-distraught Democratic Party has evolved into by then.
Meanwhile, as The New York Times columnist David Brooks noted, President Trump will more likely than not stumble and tweet his way into an impeachment-worthy scandal of some sort, if his inexperience and incompetence don’t destroy his reputation first. Ironically, Trump’s probably the most “moderate” Republican on economics in power today, opposing entitlement cuts and supporting massive spending increases in infrastructure and the like. We have yet to see whether those initiatives will overpower the Ryan-McConnell ones, but it’s not too far out there to assume Trump might soon eliminate any presidential efficacy he might presently enjoy.
So on both ends, the house of cards that is the Ryan-McConnell-Trump Republican majority in government rests on shaky foundations, and will likely collapse sooner rather than later at the hands of the same angry voters who delivered it. I’ve gotten most of my predictions wrong these past few years, of course, but given the President-elect’s ego and Congress’ ideological disposition to destroy rather than to create, I have a good feeling about this one.
The question is, what comes next?
A lot of the answer to that rests on the question of where the Democrats go from here. If they reform their center and start doing well in the Heartland, we might see a Bill Clinton-like resurgence. If they push further and further left economically and culturally, as many of their activists are suggesting they do, there will be a wide-open space in the political center, between the white nationalism of Trump, the supply-side priesthood of Ryan, and the progressive, soft socialism of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
That space in the center, historically contested, could be fertile ground for new, reform-oriented conservatives and centrists to make headway. I’m not talking about Reformicons, those East Coast policy wonks who present a warmed-over Reaganism of funding gimmicks and tax contraptions. Their ideas are OK, but it seems that whoever exploits the gap will have to take the basics of the Trump equation — anti-elitism, economic nationalism, government reformism — soften them, expand their appeal to nonwhite population, and build on the ashes of Trump and Ryan from there. Governor-Elect Eric Greitens of Missouri, a Democrat-turned-Republican who ran on a reformist message, might be one candidate to lead this sort of charge.
The contours of such a new center/center-right are at best hazy and speculative right now, and won’t materialize unless the current GOP majority fails miserably. Assuming that that will happen, here’s to hoping some reform-minded anti-Trump Republicans get together in the coming months and plot next steps to build a shadow conservatism for these dark days. When the house of cards comes tumbling down, their time will come.
Luke Phillips is a senior majoring in international relations. His column,“Tory Men,” ran every other Wednesday.