Heather R. Higgins is president and CEO of Independent Women’s Voice. Carrie Lukas is vice president of policy and economics at Independent Women’s Voice. They wrote this for InsideSources.com.
Donald Trump promises to make America great again. Ironically, Trump may ultimately make the Republican Party great again — by being our “Pogo” epiphany: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Ronald Reagan appealed beyond the traditional conservative base, to groups such as white working-class voters, formerly known as “Reagan Democrats.”
Unfortunately, Trump’s methods of bringing in new voters alienates old ones, as well as a large share of others who could potentially be persuaded. Polls show nearly half of Republicans would be dissatisfied with his nomination, and two-thirds of all voters view him unfavorably. That’s not expanding the party tent; it’s badly remodeling it.
But Republicans deserve the Trumping they are getting. Reagan did two core things that the GOP establishment, on the one hand, and passionate conservatives, on the other, have not done for a long time
First, Reagan didn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; he compromised, and understood the value of small wins — or, as he called it, taking slices rather than demanding the whole loaf at once.
Second, he spoke to and empathized with the problems of every American.
For most of two decades — really since the 1994 Gingrich Revolution was stymied by President Bill Clinton — Republican leadership in Washington has focused on avoiding whatever they saw as another public relations disaster. The D.C. and New York media have been their primary audience; keeping their own voters happy, a lesser priority.
Many influential conservative thought leaders — from radio hosts, to think-tank heads, to grassroots organizers — went in the other direction. Understandably frustrated with party leaders’ timidity, they encouraged the conservative base to demand the conservative agenda without compromise.
That sounds wonderfully principled. Yet in practice it has repeatedly crippled our effectiveness, led at best to costly Pyrrhic victories, and doomed any actual conservative progress. The examples are legion. Estimates, for example, are that this quest for the perfect will cost Americans $100 billion more in taxes over a decade because conservatives on principle refused to go along with a compromise extending the Bush tax cuts — and ended up with a worse deal.
In recent budget battles, the principled stand of stalwart conservatives to never vote for any budget funding departments and programs despised by their base meant that every Democrat who would fill that void would get a concession. And that has left us with budgets far larger than they had to be, hardly any conservative victories, laws like Obamacare proceeding without a dent, and a public perception that Republicans don’t win.
But when it comes to Trump’s voters, winning matters. What uncompromising conservatives hailed last fall as a conservative victory — getting a veto from Obama on Obamacare — was viewed as yet another wasted opportunity to actually accomplish something real.
Republican Party leadership, too, should see the rise of Trump as a voter intervention. After all, infidelity often stems from problems within a marriage; party leaders should take their constituents’ love affair with Trump as a sign that they have lost their members’ trust. The GOP hasn’t been listening to voters, understanding their concerns, and speaking to their needs.
In economics, for example, GOP voices often sound as if they only care about business and the wealthy, fueling that myth.
Too often free-trade advocates have not adequately emphasized the challenges our government has created for businesses to function competitively here. They presume that the large benefits of trade to the country as a whole are understood and sufficient, while failing to adequately appreciate and address the individual challenges wrought by the different distributional effects that trade and economic growth can create.
Those economic challenges are made worse by the breach of faith on immigration. Party leaders prioritize the economics of immigration, pooh-poohing how illegal immigration is experienced by economically squeezed Americans outside of gated communities.
It’s easy to dismiss calls for a fence when you already have one of your own. Party leaders need to approach the illegal immigration issue with an understanding of its deep emotional impact and the legitimate concerns of their base, pushing back on the left’s claim that this is just racism, and attempt to find workable solutions.
Republicans, in short, have to reconnect with voters on the ground and their daily struggles to see a path to the American Dream. They must stop bashing each other, and explain how their solutions can rebuild that road to prosperity, a step at a time.
One-third of Americans still identify as conservatives, compared to one-quarter who call themselves liberal. Those conservatives need a party to represent them. The Republican Party has long filled that role, providing a home to anyone who believes in constitutional government, personal responsibility and economic opportunity.
This is a marriage that Trump’s ascendance may actually reunify, if the party’s leadership and its base both recommit to actually achieving, step by step, the fundamental shared values that brought them together in the first place.