Ever since it became obvious that Donald Trump’s most compelling appeal was to non-college educated Republican-leaners, it’s been difficult for the so-called Reform Conservatives, a.k.a. Reformicons, who had been arguing for a GOP focus on this category of voters. Needless to say Trump isn’t what these conservative intellectuals had in mind, as I discussed earlier this week at New York:
It’s been just over a decade since two young conservative intellectuals penned a challenge to Republican economic-policy orthodoxy at the Weekly Standard after noting the GOP’s dependence on white working-class voters:
This is the Republican party of today — an increasingly working-class party, dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement. To borrow a phrase from Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Republicans are now “the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.”
Therein lies a great political danger for Republicans, because on domestic policy, the party isn’t just out of touch with the country as a whole, it’s out of touch with its own base.
Ross Douthat (now a New York Times columnist) and Reihan Salam (now at National Review) went on to lay out a policy agenda that they thought might finally begin to align the GOP with the economic interests of its middle-class, non-entrepreneurial supporters, focused on more generous child tax credits and other pro-parenting initiatives; “market-based” health-care reform; wage subsidies (as opposed to minimum-wage mandates); and a retreat from the Bush administration’s immigration policies.
Douthat and Salam expanded their essay into the 2008 book Grand New Party, and three years later, Mr. Sam’s Club Republican himself, Tim Pawlenty, launched an unsuccessful presidential campaign that mainly just looked like a bland effort to appeal to GOP voters across factional lines. But joined by others who began calling themselves “reform conservatives” or Reformicons (Ryan Cooper wrote a useful taxonomy of them early in 2013 for the Washington Monthly), those calling for a more middle-class-oriented domestic policy stance by the GOP (the Reformicons mostly ignored foreign policy) grew into a loose, if elite, faction that sought influence in various parts of the GOP. In early 2014, Reformicons put together something of a rough policy playbook under the sponsorship of then-high-flying House GOP leader Eric Cantor. And as the 2016 presidential contest took shape, Reformicons were found in prominent positions in the campaigns of Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and Jeb Bush. Rubio looked to be the best vehicle for Reformicon ideas, given his youth, his warm embrace of “family-friendly” tax policies, and a Hispanic identity that made his sudden opposition to comprehensive immigration reform (an about-face that most, if not all, Reformicons supported) go down easier. Sure, Rubio’s tax plan gave trillions to corporations and wealthy individuals and relative peanuts to working-class families (a good reflection of the balance of power in the GOP), but it won plaudits for heretical courage nonetheless.
And then, like a very bad joke (You call that Sam’s Club Republicanism? Here’s Sam’s Club Republicanism!), along came a presidential candidate who represented what many in the white working class really wanted: not just a GOP Establishment figure who paid their economic interests lip service, but someone who violently opposed liberalized immigration policies along with the pro-trade, “entitlement reform” orthodoxy of wealthy GOP elites, and articulated a fear of cultural change and national decline that most well-off Republicans, continuing to prosper during the current economic “recovery,” could not begin to fathom. Worse yet, it seems Republicans’ best idea for “taking Trump down” was to show he is not a “true conservative” on economic issues. As Reformicons could have told them, neither are most white working-class Republican voters….
Could Republicans have headed off the calamity Trump may represent for them by listening to the Reformicons and paying greater tribute to the white working class? Maybe. But the other possibility is that we are seeing a long-suppressed explosion of conflict between Republicans motivated by cultural discontent and hostility to Democratic constituencies and those who actually buy into economic policies designed to propitiate wealthy “job creators.”
If that’s so, Trump is just the beginning of the GOP’s problems.