Seriously, What Would It Take?

by Neil H. Buchanan

The increasing ugliness of the Republican presidential campaign, evident most recently in the bomb-'em-all attitude of nearly every candidate, has generated widespread discussion of whether the Republican Party could suffer significant defections if it continues on its current course.  The public soul-searching from some Republican politicians and pundits is long overdue, of course, but it is also an important moment in which we can assess whether there is anything more than fear of electoral disaster motivating their statements of supposed principle.

As frequent readers of Dorf on Law might recall, I have long been fascinated with the question of why so many people continue to stick with the Republican Party.  This is especially important because one wants to believe that most people do not share the views -- by which, to be very clear, I mean the vitriolic anger and hatred -- that the party's candidates and officeholders at all level of government have been peddling for a long time now.  This is a genuine puzzle.

This past summer, for example, I wrote a pair of Dorf on Law posts in which I discussed the fact that the shared policy positions of Republican candidates and officeholders are extremely unpopular.  In the first of those posts, I characterized Republican apostate (but genuine conservative) David Frum as saying "that one can be a good conservative without being a gay-baiting, racist, immigrant-bashing neanderthal."

In the second of those posts, I questioned whether Frum's supposition is actually correct.  I noted that there really are good people who continue to support the Republican Party, even though they are willing to remain, shall we say, neanderthal-adjacent for some reason.  Discussing such matters as whether it makes sense to be "socially progressive, but economically conservative," I concluded: "I would not call any of my conservative friends, family members, or colleagues neanderthals, and not just to be polite."  The fact is, however, that continuing to pull the lever for Republicans empowers people whose views are truly abhorrent to the values that these avowedly moderate conservatives claim to embrace.

Nor is any of this relevant merely because of the surprising emergence of Trump and Cruz as leaders in the Republican presidential race (although it is, of course, the Trump phenomenon that has finally caused many Republicans to wonder what the hell has happened to their party).  The widening disconnect between moderate Republicans and the party that they continue to support has been increasingly evident for decades.  As Paul Krugman and many others have pointed out, Trump's views on almost every issue are merely unvarnished versions of what nearly all Republicans have been saying and doing for at least a generation.

Two years ago, I wrote a Verdict column and an associated Dorf on Law post in which I asked of moderate Republicans who refuse to leave the party, "What Would It Take?"  It is understandable that people stick with a political party despite occasional disagreements, because adults recognize that no political party (even in a multi-party system) could perfectly align with one's policy preferences.  But at some point, the disconnect simply becomes so great that one expects people to start to walk away.

By the standards of the current political moment, the particular issues that I laid out in those late-2013 pieces are almost quaint.  In our current moment, in which the supposed moderate among Republican presidential candidates takes virtually no flak for having proposed allowing only Christian refugees to enter the country, the old list of stomach-churning Republican policies starts to look almost pedestrian.  Yet the pre-2015 Republican party was already all-in for cutting off food aid to poor children, denying voting rights to minorities, refusing to deal with climate change, and on and on.  What more, I wondered, would be necessary to drive self-described moderates out of the Republican fold?

In my new Verdict column, published yesterday, I tried once again to understand the thinking of people who seem so out of place in the radical right-wing party that the Republicans have so enthusiastically become.  Almost no Republican politician would dare leave the party, if for no other reason than the near impossibility of Democrats truly trusting the turncoat in a way that would make a future political career possible.  And moderate non-politicians who wish to become federal judges and so on certainly have careerist reasons to stick around.

The bigger question is those moderates who have nothing personal to gain.  They have watched their party become more and more extreme, to the point that in late 2015 what passes for a moderate Republican statesman is Senator Lindsey Graham, who attacks Trump while talking about how much he wishes George W. Bush were still president, and who is one of the most aggressive militarists in the race.  Seriously, what would it take?

Last Sunday, The New York Times tried to answer a similar question, publishing a letter from a self-identified Republican who claims that "half our number" are "quiet moderates" who are "[p]ro-choice, pro-gun-control and accepting of same-sex marriage," and whose "first priority is championing private enterprise, the engine that drives the nation, pays its bills, rewards ingenuity and creates jobs."

The Times included with that letter some responses to that Republicans' defense of her party (and her continued affiliation with it).  What was most interesting about those responses is that some responders described various ways in which no reasonable person could hold the moderate views that the writer claimed to hold and not be driven screaming from her party.  Or, as the first responder concluded: "[S]ince her views overlap nearly completely with those of President Obama and the people running to succeed him, she might consider registering as a Democrat instead."  Or, as another responder put it: "Because a majority of Republicans say they are moderates, [the original letter writer] infers that they must actually be moderate."

What I found most interesting about the letter writer's response to that series of comments (which included several sympathetic ripostes from fellow disaffected Republicans) is that she simply resorted to naked partisanship: "Democrats have no choice but to remain fiercely protective of the image of Republican as intractable crackpot, given their presidential campaign’s struggles with issues of trust, following Benghazi and the personal email server snafu."  In other words, people who have stayed with the Republican Party -- even those who claim to be moderate -- gleefully fall back on Clinton-bashing to justify not becoming Democrats.  Benghazi?  That is what self-styled moderates rely on to vilify Democrats?  Seriously?

Even more revealing are the letter writer's two further claims.  First, she says that Democrats are "too fond of expensive regulation to be trusted with the proper care of our excellent private sector," which is not only partisan tripe but is also simply false.  (Among other things, the "excellent private sector" grows more quickly and creates more jobs when Democrats are in the White House.)

But the ultimate example of blindness to reality is the claim that Democrats "can’t afford for voters to be reminded there is such a thing as a dignified and reliable Republican who cares. The primaries may blow their cover."  So, we are supposed to believe that one of the current clown-car full of Republican presidential candidates will emerge to prove that the Republicans are moderate.  Which one is pro-gun control?  Which one is pro-choice?  Which one is accepting of same-sex marriage?  Which one would nominate Supreme Court justices who would be in the mold of the old-style reasonable conservative Sandra Day O'Connor, or even the very conservative Anthony Kennedy?

The question in the title of this post is, then, ultimately beside the point.  For people who are committed to believing that the Republicans have not become an extreme right-wing party, there is always simple denial and the comforting vilification of Democrats.  The Republican Party must change or it will die, but the change will evidently not come from supposed moderates threatening to walk away.  If change comes, it will be because the party will have to replace these deluded (and aging) souls with people who will not join in the first place unless serious changes are made.