Monday, July 11, 2016

Right Now, Trump Isn't Saving the GOP From Anything (Except Maybe the White House)

Nearly 60 years ago, the economist Anthony Downs published An Economic Theory of Democracy, a study that remains widely-read and frequently-cited today. The book is best known for Downs's formalization of a specific model of electoral politics to which many political observers intuitively subscribe. If the competition between two political parties can be described as occurring on a single ideological dimension between matching left and right poles, and if voters predictably support the party taking the ideological position that is closest to their own, each party will face an electoral incentive to move its position in the direction of the ideological center—converging toward the preferences of the median voter in the electorate.

In practice, ambitious politicians may be restricted in their freedom to reposition themselves in this way by the demands of primary voters, party activists, financial donors, interest groups, and other influential actors who insist upon the parties' commitment to non-centrist policies. It is also fair to question whether voters indeed consistently view party conflict in ideological terms and make their choices accordingly, whether they correctly perceive the relative positions of candidates and parties on a left-to-right dimension, and whether their own political views can be coherently translated into a specific position on that same dimension. Whatever the reason or reasons, the predictions of Downs's model clash in many respects with the reality of an American political system in which the two parties' policy positions have not only remained distinct but have further diverged over the ensuing six decades. Yet few political analysts reject the median voter logic entirely—all else being equal, aren't there still more votes to be had by running to the ideological center rather than toward the left or right fringe?

A recent New York Times article by Sam Tanenhaus called "How Trump Can Save the GOP" contains one of the purest Downsian analyses of contemporary American politics in recent memory. The argument in the piece rests on the following premises:

1. The Republican Party is currently in an electoral crisis.

2. This crisis is due to the GOP's excessive ideological extremity and inflexibility, especially on the issue of popular federal entitlement programs, which limits the party's popular appeal in the national electorate.

3. Donald Trump is an ideological centrist compared to most Republican officeholders, and his triumph in the presidential primaries reflects the desire of many rank-and-file Republican voters to pull their party's policies to the left on economic matters.

4. Trump's nomination gives the national Republican Party a rare and perhaps welcome opportunity to shed its association with electorally disadvantageous conservative economic policies, potentially strengthening its overall popularity with the American public in the present and future.

5. If elected president, Trump would govern in a pragmatic style à la Dwight Eisenhower, developing productive relationships with congressional leaders of both parties and prizing concrete legislative accomplishments over symbolic gestures—thus "unlocking the frozen gears of government."

If one accepts these premises, Trump arguably emerges as something like the Republican version of Bill Clinton in the 1990s: a new leader who offers his party the chance to rebuild its (supposedly) declining electoral fortunes and seize the mantle of responsible governance, at the price of making certain ideological compromises. Much of Clinton's political maneuvering had a Downsian logic to it; he often pursued a strategy of "triangulation" that involved positioning himself ideologically in between the left wing of the Democratic Party and the conservative leadership of the GOP.

Poke at any of these assumptions, however, and the picture of Trump as Republican savior starts to fade very quickly. In lieu of a more thorough analysis, I offer a few thoughts in response.

First, there really isn't a strong case that the Republican Party is facing an electoral crisis—or at least it wasn't before Trump came along. At the congressional and state level, Republicans are currently as electorally dominant as at any time since the 1920s. Democratic presidential candidates have indeed won the national popular vote in 5 of the past 6 elections, but none of those elections was a double-digit landslide (one was close enough that the GOP was able to achieve an electoral college majority anyway). It's quite possible that a different Republican nominee would be leading Hillary Clinton in the national polls this year, and under that scenario few people would be talking about the need for a fundamental redefinition of Republicanism in order to allow the party to recapture the White House.

Second, the assertion that the Republican Party's economic positions are an obvious electoral vulnerability is similarly debatable. It is true that most voters agree with Democrats that the benefits provided by entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare should be maintained or expanded, but most voters also agree with Republicans that government is too big and too costly in general. Even voters who would be potentially alienated by Republican economic policy might be unaware of the party's true positions. During the 2012 campaign, staffers at one Democratic-aligned super PAC found that when they informed focus group participants of Mitt Romney's support for converting Medicare into a voucher program even as he proposed significant reductions in the tax rates paid by the wealthy, "the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing."

Third, it is likely that Trump's deviations from Republican economic orthodoxy on issues other than international trade policy have received more attention from pundits than from voters. From time to time, Trump has expressed support for maintaining middle-class entitlement programs at their current benefit levels, but this has hardly been a central message of his campaign; he has also proposed a tax cut plan that disproportionately favors wealthy citizens. The salient distinction between Trump and other leading Republicans resembles a familiar center-versus-right ideological conflict much less than it does a difference in emphasis between Trump's prominent ethno-nationalist rhetoric and the more traditional Republican themes of limited government and cultural traditionalism.

A growing tension is evident between two competing and somewhat irreconcilable strains of media analysis. Does America now find itself amidst a formidable populist uprising against the cosmopolitan elite, with Trump himself acting as the ascendant agent of an enraged (white) working class poised to marshal its superior voting numbers to take bitter revenge on a discredited and vulnerable political "establishment"? Or does Trump's imminent nomination instead represent a political blunder of historic magnitude, as a Republican Party throws away an otherwise winnable race against a flawed opponent by choosing a standard-bearer who is likely to be uniquely unpopular with the average Americans whom he claims to champion?

We'll find out which of these two perspectives is more accurate in November, though the evidence so far strongly points in the direction of the latter view. And if Trump ultimately receives a lower share of the vote than Mitt Romney, John McCain, or George W. Bush won in preceding elections—an entirely possible outcome, given current polling—the outcome will suggest that whatever electoral advantage Trump may have gained from his supposed economic centrism relative to his party was far outweighed by the presence of other important considerations in the minds of voters. At the moment, Donald Trump looks less like a savior and more like an anchor weighing down the GOP's presidential ambitions.