Donald Trump won the presidency in large part because he successfully posed as a moderate.
When I say "moderate," I mean a bona fide Northeastern Rockefeller Republican-In-Name-Only squish — a "commonsense conservative" who won't cut Medicare, Social Security, or Medicaid benefits, who won't break out in hives on the subject of single-payer health care, and might even raise taxes on the wealthy! Obviously, Trump has not governed as a moderate. And even during the campaign, he tangled up his economic moderation with often-nasty nativism that played directly to the prejudices of the white working class. But you have to admit, on the campaign trail, the bulk of his rhetoric on jobs, the welfare state, and innumerable economic issues was downright moderate. And it was awfully popular with Republican voters.
Now, the term "moderate" is bandied about all too often in Washington, as you may have noticed every single time you read a story about the health-care overhaul recently approved by a narrow majority of House Republicans. The problem is, as the center of political gravity has shifted rightward over the last 40 years, the meaning of "moderate" has unhelpfully shifted with it.
Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell satirically likens true Republican moderates to Bigfoot, the mythical beast whose existence is never verified. But that's not quite right. Moderate Republicans are more like woolly mammoths: They don't exist, but they used to. Even in the death throes of the Gingrich Revolution, moderates were an important bloc in the House Republican caucus, supplying, for example, support that proved critical in the impeachment of President Clinton.
Hardcore Gingrich conservatism had become deeply unpopular by then. To win the presidency in 2000, George W. Bush distanced himself from the congressional Republican majority and famously ran on a platform of "compassionate conservatism" — that is, a conservatism that would not balance the budget on "the backs of the poor." (He didn't balance the budget on anyone's backs, as it turned out, but that's another story.)
Hardcore conservatism — fiscally austerian, budget-slashing, entitlement-overhauling, New Deal-rolling-back conservatism — remains deeply unpopular today. The fact that it now dominates the Republican Party is one of the great oddities of American political history. In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower, in an acidly phrased letter to his brother, identified what today passes for mainline conservatism as a "tiny splinter group." "Their number is negligible and they are stupid," he wrote. You could spend the rest of your days reading volumes about how this "tiny splinter group" gradually took over one of the major parties of an advanced industrial democracy, driving moderates into extinction in the process. But suffice it to say, for now, that hardcore conservatism is massively distorting our politics and is arguably the chief reason for gridlock in D.C.
In an amusing story about the ideological knots that Republicans tie themselves in, William Voegeli, author of Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State, rhetorically asked the New York Times, "If you can't unbuild this [government] structure, then what the hell are you doing here?" The story continued:
Mr. Voegeli pointed to a long list of government programs that Republicans have promised to defund or eliminate — the National Endowment for the Arts, public broadcasting, the Department of Education and, of course, the Affordable Care Act — amid the expansion of the liberal "administrative state," to use a term popular inside the Trump administration.
"You run on election cycle after election cycle with Republicans complaining but never taking the obvious next step," he said. "And eventually you're going to get a lot of restless conservatives out there." [The New York Times]
Voegeli's frustration is understandable. But the reason why conservatives stand athwart the welfare state and never seem to get very far is the same as it was in 1954 when Eisenhower was keeping kooky rich guys like H.L. Hunt at bay: The number of people who truly want to cut these programs is negligible. If nothing else, Donald Trump the candidate knew this. Even as he thundered angrily at the threat posed by inner-city gang members, border-crossing criminals, and Bible-unbelieving Islamists, the message he conveyed to his base was much more reassuring. No matter what would be done to save popular entitlement programs, he signaled, white people, at least, would be held harmless. In this, Trump joined the political profile of Northeastern moderates like Al D'Amato, who still wield power in the GOP primary system, to Southern revanchists like George Wallace.
Now, economics and race are no doubt inextricably entangled. But that doesn't mean economic moderation can't be de-linked from Trump's racialism in today's GOP.
Indeed, if you just ditch the libertarian economics, you go a long way toward ditching the racial baggage, too.
That's what the GOP needs. Abandon the hardcore conservatism that promises to decimate the very government programs that help people. Embrace a brand of economic moderation that is both conservative and caring.
The GOP needs a new Eisenhower. Who will it be?