Do Republican Leaders Actually Believe That Their Policies Are Popular?

by Neil H. Buchanan

What if Donald Trump had not run for president?  Surely, many if not most Republican Party leaders have dreamed about that possibility many times over the past few months.

Rather than facing a humiliating loss that might damage or even destroy their party, or a future of trying to contain an emotionally unstable president, they can go to a happy place in their minds where one of their own occupies the Oval Office starting next January.

But what would they hope to accomplish during a non-Trump Republican presidency?  One answer appears to be that they would focus on an economic agenda, rather than pursuing the policies implied by Trump's nonsensical claims that immigrants and Muslims are the source of all of America's problems.

The good news for Republican leaders, then, is that Donald Trump gave a speech in Detroit on August 8 in which he read a prepared text containing a smattering of thoughts -- not really an agenda, but at least enough to count as a few planks of an economic platform -- about tax and economic policy.  The better news is that they surely agreed with everything that he said.

For at least one day, it was not Trump-versus-Ryan or Trump-versus-veterans or Trump-versus-reality or Trump-versus-decency.  Instead, Trump managed to contain himself long enough to explain that, as everyone already knew even before Monday's speech, the one thing that Trump and Republicans can agree on is tax cuts for the rich.

In my new Verdict column, I note that the big takeaway from Trump's speech is that he has no economic ideas of his own.  Instead, he has simply adopted the Republican Party's warmed-over supply-side economic agenda.  (International trade is an entirely different issue, of course.)  He has even abandoned his previously stated intention to do what Republicans would like to do but on an even larger scale, which was what his half-baked tax plan from last Fall amounted to.

On its own, this ought to be big news.  Trump claims (hilariously) that economic policy is his strong suit, the thing that best qualifies him to be president.  Like other millionaires and billionaires before him, he thinks that knowing how to make money -- although in Trump's case, it was actually a matter of being given money and then making less with it than almost anyone else could have done -- means that he knows how the economy works.

Instead of offering his own new and brilliant insights, however, he tried to hit the restart button on his flailing campaign by saying, in essence, "I don't have any ideas of my own.  I'll just adopt Republican orthodoxy and hope for the best."

As I point out in that column, the premise of a supposed rebooting of Trump's campaign, in which he would stop making crazy and unpopular statements and instead stick to message discipline on economic policy, was always absurd.  Within a day of his speech, he was back in full Trump mode, inciting controversy with his "Second Amendment people" comment.

And how degraded is the political environment when Trump can give a speech in which he said that members of the Islamic state "honor President Obama," but that story does not even stay on the front page of The New York Times's website for more than a few hours?  Trump even added: "He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS."  But that is not enough to move the needle anymore.

Even though that particular provocation seems not to have caught fire, Republican leaders must surely be back in panic mode, despairing that their nominee has already squandered whatever minimal good press he might have received by adopting their economic agenda.

This means that they might have to move on to a new plan, which was under discussion before Trump's speech in Detroit:
"Also under consideration is the possibility of a huge ad campaign to promote an agenda of conventional Republican positions, along the lines of economic proposals outlined by Mr. Ryan.

"The point of such a campaign, one strategist said, would be to provide voters with a different, nonthreatening view of Republicans, so that the party is not wholly defined by Mr. Trump’s day-to-day pronouncements."
In other words, even if they cannot get Trump to act like Paul Ryan, they can pretend that Paul Ryan's policies are on the ballot in November.  Of course, those are not Paul Ryan's policies at all, because Ryan merely lifted them from decades of Republican orthodoxy but somehow managed, in defiance of reality, to brand himself as an economic visionary.

In any event, it is worth taking a moment to think about what Republicans are apparently thinking: "Trump is a cancer on the party.  So let's remind everyone how much they love our policies."

I am tempted to say something like, "This would be funny if it wasn't so sad."  But it actually is just plain funny.

Such deluded thinking -- that the people would embrace Republicans, if only their candidate could focus on trickle-down economics -- brings to mind similar discussions from last summer, long before Trump was the Republicans' biggest problem.

After the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision (establishing marriage equality as a constitutional right), the inside-the-Beltway idea of the moment was that Republicans could finally put the culture wars behind them and stop alienating young people and swing voters.

It is worth noting, of course, that much of the Republican leadership, when push came to shove, was willing (reluctantly) to choose the religious right's fire-breathing darling Ted Cruz over Trump in the latter stages of the primaries.  And they have had no complaints about Trump's choice of career culture warrior Mike Pence as Trump's running mate.  Maybe, however, that is merely about desperate times and desperate measures.

More importantly, as I wrote at the time, the political insiders' wisdom in the aftermath of the Obergefell decision was really that "Republicans Can Now Return to Their Other Unpopular Positions."  They supposedly had been shooting themselves in the foot by opposing gay marriage, but now they were free to ... do what?

The rest of the Republicans' standard agenda is not much more popular than their views on same-sex marriage.  Large (and sometimes enormous) majorities of Americans reject Republicans' positions on abortion, gun control, the environment, the minimum wage, and on and on.

Trump has actually saved the Republicans from themselves on one huge issue, which is their hatred of "entitlements."  Other than firearms issues, the next least popular element of the Republican canon is attacks on Social Security and Medicare.  Ryan, of course, has for years been a loud voice attacking those popular programs and proposing thinly veiled privatize-and-destroy schemes.

What, then, is the "huge ad campaign to promote an agenda of conventional Republican positions" supposed to accomplish?  At best, it disassociates the party from the immediately threatening aspects of Trump's cult of personality.  That is certainly not nothing, but does no one remember that the Republicans have already had their fantasy election, and lost?

In 2012, after all, they nominated exactly the kind of person they wish that they had nominated this year, and he ran on a very standard Republican agenda.  Yet they lost decisively to a Democrat who was presiding over a tenuous economic recovery (a recovery that congressional Republicans did everything in their power to hobble, but I digress).  Voters were given a clear opportunity to vote for trickle-down economics and the rest of the Republican agenda, personified in the smiling package of Mitt Romney, and they rejected it (again).

Which brings me back to Republican leaders' fantasy world.  What if Trump were not the nominee?  We can imagine that they fondly imagine the 2016 election with Jeb Bush, John Kasich, or Marco Rubio as their nominee.  Sure, those three (especially Rubio) still take the usual hard line on culture war issues, but they can be made to seem moderate and not especially threatening.

And if one of those three had beaten Trump, it is true that he might actually have won against Hillary Clinton this November.  Given how successful the Republicans' long-term trashing of Clinton has been, it might well be the case (as some pundits have argued) that Trump is the only Republican who could lose to Clinton.  (Well, that is surely a gross exaggeration.  This is a field, after all, that included not just Ted Cruz but Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie.  And Jim Gilmore, Rand Paul, George Pataki, and Ben Carson.  And four others who are similarly forgotten.  But the larger point is at least arguable.)

In fact, the Republicans will surely use this logic to rationalize their fierce opposition to everything that Clinton will do when she is the President.  "She wouldn't be there if she hadn't gotten lucky."

But that, in fact, is exactly the bottom line of the Republicans' fantasy scenario, too: "We could win, in spite of the unpopularity of our policies, if we could have nominated one of our guys against Hillary Clinton."

The reality is that Republicans have managed to convince themselves that this is a matter of the messenger rather than the message.  Yes, politics is to a large degree about personality.  And when one of the personalities is as unhinged as Donald Trump's, it is easy to lose sight of the underlying substance.

The fact is, however, that large majorities of voters have shown that they do not support Republicans policies, economic or cultural.  Republicans might be right that they could have won if they had a non-repellent candidate running against the caricature that they have turned Hillary Clinton into.  But that does not mean that their elitist economic policies and retrograde social agenda are actually popular.