The Great Republican Revolt: who benefits?

I’ve never read anything by David Frum, or had a conversation with him, without thinking that I learned something. There’s plenty to learn from him in this long piece called “The Great Republican Revolt.”

The revolt, Frum says, is founded on the belief that the Republican party no longer has the interests of “Middle Americans” at heart. It is not really a conservative revolt. Instead, it is populist:

[These voters] lean Republican because they fear the Democrats want to take from them and redistribute to Americans who are newer, poorer, and in their view less deserving—to “spread the wealth around,” in candidate Barack Obama’s words to “Joe the Plumber” back in 2008. Yet they have come to fear more and more strongly that their party does not have their best interests at heart.

A majority of Republicans worry that corporations and the wealthy exert too much power. Their party leaders work to ensure that these same groups can exert even more. Mainstream Republicans were quite at ease with tax increases on households earning more than $250,000 in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the subsequent stimulus. Their congressional representatives had the opposite priorities.

If so, the Tea Party revolution was largely for naught:

It was. . .pessimistic Republicans who powered the Tea Party movement of 2009 and 2010. They were not, as a rule, libertarians looking for an ultraminimal government. The closest study we have of the beliefs of Tea Party supporters, led by Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist, found that “Tea Partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients. The distinction between ‘workers’ and ‘people who don’t work’ is fundamental to Tea Party ideology.”. . . .

Yet even as the Republican Main Street protested Obamacare, it rejected the hardening ideological orthodoxy of Republican donors and elected officials. A substantial minority of Republicans—almost 30 percent—said they would welcome “heavy” taxes on the wealthy, according to Gallup. Within the party that made Paul Ryan’s entitlement-slashing budget plan a centerpiece of policy, only 21 percent favored cuts in Medicare and only 17 percent wanted to see spending on Social Security reduced, according to Pew. Less than a third of ordinary Republicans supported a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants (again according to Pew); a majority, by contrast, favored stepped-up deportation.

As a class, big Republican donors could not see any of this, or would not. So neither did the politicians who depend upon them. Against all evidence, both groups interpreted the Tea Party as a mass movement in favor of the agenda of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. One of the more dangerous pleasures of great wealth is that you never have to hear anyone tell you that you are completely wrong.

These paragraphs explain a lot about what’s happening in the GOP race. They help explain why candidates who hold elected office — even former Tea Party heroes like Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and (until recently) Ted Cruz — have been unable to gain traction.

They help explain why the fact that Donald Trump isn’t really a conservative hasn’t hurt him yet. He can get to a one-third share of the GOP vote (and maybe a two-fifths share or more) without paying much attention to the traditional conservative agenda.

It strikes me, though, that the Democrats have faced a similar dynamic. At least one-third of their voters are fed up, for populist reasons, with what the Democratic establishment served up during Bill Clinton’s presidency and (to a lesser extent) Barack Obama’s. Thus Bernie Sanders’ poll numbers are roughly the same as Donald Trump’s.

Why, then, would it be absurd to speak of a Democratic revolt?

The most obvious answer is that the non-rebel vote on the Democratic side is fully captured by one candidate — Hillary Clinton, the heir apparent. But this answer begs the question. Why is there no successful Republican heir apparent (as there almost invariably has been in past cycles)? Why is the Republican field so fractured?

The answer, I think, takes us back to Frum’s analysis. The Republican heir apparent, Jeb Bush, snubbed his Party’s populist element, along with a portion of its traditional conservatives. He presented himself as morally superior to it.

The GOP’s most attractive candidate, Marco Rubio, didn’t quite make Bush’s mistake. However, he bought the Party leadership’s narrative (roundly criticized by Frum) that the big lesson of the 2012 defeat is that Republicans need to embrace amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. (We’ll see whether this lesson holds true in general elections, but it did Rubio great harm in his quest for the nomination.)

Hillary Clinton has made no comparable mistake. Instead, she has paid much heed to populist sentiment in her Party. This has caused her to undertake gyrations, some of which may complicate her position in the general election. But it has helped clear her path to the nomination and ensured that, as the nominee, she’ll be able to count on the vast majority of Sanders supporters.

Would Bush or Rubio be able to count on Trump supporters? It’s far from clear that they would.

Ted Cruz is the only Republican contender who has emerged as a plausible bridge candidate between Republican populists and traditional Republican conservatives. He has done so masterfully, beginning with his smackdown of the congressional establishment in 2013 and continuing with his ( hypocritical) refusal to engage in “Republican-on-Republican violence” with Donald Trump this year.

That Cruz is an opportunist, I think there can be little doubt. But he certainly is no more of one than the last two Democratic presidents and clearly is less of one than Hillary Clinton. Moreover, he is our opportunist — a conservative one.

The challenge for Cruz will come when he and Trump are the last two (or two of the last three or four) candidates standing. At that point, Cruz will have to engage in a little “violence” with the populist frontrunner.

Here, I think he can steal from Hillary Clinton’s playbook. She has been able to draw contrasts between her positions and those of Sanders without abandoning her populist pretense.

Cruz is clever enough, I think, to draw contrasts between his positions and Trump’s without alienating Trump-style populists. Just as Clinton’s contrasts with Sanders invoke mainstream liberal thinking, Cruz’s contrasts will likely draw from mainstream conservative thinking — i.e., belief in limited government. In both cases, the mainstream thinking, though under serious fire, still probably commands majority support within the respective parties.