WASHINGTON, May 8, 2016 — Donald Trump’s apparent capture of the Republican presidential nomination signals the reinvention of the Republican Party. The GOP establishment has lost control of the party. A new breed of Republicans is in charge.
What will the new Republican Party look like?
A plurality, 40.2 percent, of Republican voters to date have voted for a candidate from outside of politics. For the first time in more than 60 years, they selected a candidate who has never held any public office.
In 1952, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who led the U.S. to victory in WWII, ran for the Republican nomination against Sen. Robert Taft, a conservative not unlike Ted Cruz. Taft represented the establishment, while Eisenhower ran as a non-ideological outsider.
The Republican establishment favored the traditionally conservative Taft, even though conservatives like him had lost the prior three elections to Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Taft narrowly lost the nomination on the first ballot. Eisenhower went on to win the general election, taking the party in a more big-government direction. He honored some conservative economic principles and ran against Truman’s “Fair Deal,” but he didn’t run against FDR’s New Deal and he expanded Social Security, raised the minimum wage, and launched the construction of the interstate highways system.
The establishment has lost again. In spite of a lack of endorsements, an avalanche of negative ads directed at him, and his inexperience at running a presidential campaign, Trump appears to have secured the nomination.
Rather than embracing the will of the voters, many in the Republican old guard say they will not vote Trump and will not even attend the convention. This may be the first time that former Republican presidents and presidential candidates have so publicly rejected the voters’ choice of candidate.
Both former-Presidents Bush, Mitt Romney, and Lindsey Graham say they will not not attend the nominating convention. The Bushes have not said they won’t vote for Trump, but the refusal of George W. Bush (George H.W. Bush is almost 92 and can’t reasonably be expected to stump for anyone) to work on Trump’s behalf is unusual. The absence of so many GOP luminaries at the convention will have symbolic weight.
In July, Trump will go to the convention to accept the nomination and help shape the party’s platform. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and others from this year’s crop of presidential candidates will be there hoping to help shape the platform, which they hope will help the party keep control of both houses of Congress.
They, with others who now support Trump, represent a changing of the guard, but how they’ll change the party is hard to say. The views of people like Cruz are clear, and we know what he’ll want in the platform, but Trump has been less clear on both the general shape of his potential administration and on policy specifics. He remains flexible on many issues.
Eisenhower’s new GOP was more moderate than the establishment. Today’s new GOP is divided. The Cruz faction rejects establishment figures like Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney as too moderate, detested RINOs. Another faction directs its ire not at RINOs or an ideology, but at insiders; it rejects the establishment because it is the establishment, not because of its ideology.
Although some of the establishment refuses to participate in the convention, they will argue from the wings that only a moderate conservative can reach across party lines to win the general election. The retort is that Romney and McCain tried to reach across party lines and lost; if they’d really been conservative, they would have won.
Trump’s new Republicans might answer that McCain lost because of the recession and strong dislike for President Bush. Romney lost because he was a poor campaigner. He was too deferential, too nice, unwilling to play a hard game. He stopped campaigning a week before the election, when polls gave him a slight lead, because of Hurricane Sandy. He gave Obama the national stage, stood aside and lost his lead.
Trump’s new Republicans are like the establishment and Cruz factions on economic issues: They want to cut spending, cut budget deficits, cut tax rates and reduce regulation. They want a strong national defense. But on social issues, they are more moderate, or they just don’t care. Just how moderate remains to be seen, but certainly more moderate than the Cruz faction.
Parties stumble when established leaders lose control and the baton is seized by new leaders. Trump will have to find a way to pull the establishment and conservative factions together to participate in the process, even though he will nominally be in charge. That’s a tough deal to make, but Trump is the ultimate deal-maker. If anyone can pull it off, it should be him.