Why Republicans Find it Hard to Be Nice These Days
It's easier to be sunny when you're ascendant. Plus: Tax reform should wait until 2025.
David Frum wrote today about a political problem for Republicans: they keep nominating miserable and unlikable candidates. They also have a problem with nominating extreme candidates, but this isn’t exactly the same problem. Dr. Oz, for example, carved out a moderate-but-rude lane for himself on his way to losing the Pennsylvania Senate race by four points.
David writes about the aftermath of John Fetterman’s stroke:
In August, the Oz campaign released a list of “concessions” it would offer to the Democrat John Fetterman in a candidates’ debate, including:
“We will allow John to have all of his notes in front of him along with an earpiece so he can have the answers given to him by his staff, in real time.” And: “We will pay for any additional medical personnel he might need to have on standby.”…
Oz was for years a successful TV pitchman, trusted by millions of Americans for health advice. The first Muslim nominated for a Senate run by a major party, he advanced Republican claims to represent 21st-century America. Oz got himself tangled up between competing positions on abortion, sometimes in consecutive sentences, precisely because he hoped to position himself as moderate on such issues.
But Oz’s decision to campaign as a jerk hurt him. When his opponent got sick, Oz could have drawn on his own medical background for compassion and understanding. Before he succumbed to the allure of TV, Oz was an acclaimed doctor whose innovations transformed the treatment of heart disease. He could have reminded voters of his best human qualities rather than displaying his worst.
In part, candidates are looking at what they perceive to have been Donald Trump’s path to victory and trying to copy his persona. Even on this metric, they fail — Trump is funny, most of his imitators are not, and this makes their miserable-asshole shticks extra miserable compared to his. The imitators also often lack Trump’s sound political instinct for moderating on loser political issues like entitlement cuts. But the biggest problem is that Trump has never, during his entire time as a politician, been popular. Even if you succeed at copying his approach, you’re running a playbook to get 46% of the vote.
But the other reason Republicans have gravitated to this off-putting style is that they lack other good options. Past Republican models for being conservative and affable don’t really seem applicable to today’s politics, especially at the national level.
When I think about previous forms of “sunny” Republican politics, there are two main models: a Reagan-style conservatism based on the idea that Americans can rise and prosper through tax cuts, deregulation, and military strength; or Bush 43-style “compassionate conservatism” heavily inflected with evangelical Christianity. These conservatisms could be optimistic because they felt ascendant. Conservatives sought to strengthen key societal institutions — corporations, the military, and the church — that they thought would support conservative ends if empowered to do so.
But now, it’s mostly bad, bitter feelings. Conservatives feel alienated from a “woke” corporate sector. Even if they are aligned with the interests of capital (and therefore stockholders) they are alienated from corporations at a staff level and don’t trust businesses as entities to promote conservative ends. The failure of the Iraq war reduced conservative (and liberal) enthusiasm for military engagement, and Trump’s overt skepticism of NATO and foreign military entanglements has made Republicans less uniformly keen on empowering the military, which has also anyway become suspiciously “woke.” Religiosity, meanwhile, has declined. A mass evangelical politics looks less plausible than it did in the Bush years, especially since Trump’s inroads with working-class whites in the north have made the Republican coalition more secular than it used to be.
Because they have grown alienated from powerful institutions they used to count on, Republicans are increasingly locked into a politics of “the people versus the powerful.” But unlike Democrats, they can’t rely on unionism as a principle to organize such a politics. It’s almost inevitable that this kind of politics has to be bitter, angry and dark.
Ron DeSantis has probably had the most success at turning anti-institutional sentiment into public policy — seeking to financially punish the Walt Disney Company, pushing to undermine tenure protections and ban DEI initiatives at state universities — but at best, this looks like a strategy for mitigating the liberal force of these institutions rather than turning them into conservative ones. It’s not a basis for a grand vision of how conservatism can reign and make people happy, prosperous and free — it’s a basis for a vision that entails remaining besieged and undermined even after you win elections.
As David notes, DeSantis’s dour politics didn’t stop him from winning a thumping re-election victory. DeSantis was helped by broadly popular initiatives of little interest to national news consumers that were enabled by Democrats’ fiscal largesse to the states — Everglades restoration, climate resiliency projects, teacher pay increases, toll suspensions — and by an abortion policy that has been, so far, moderate compared to other Republican-led states. I agree with David that it will be hard for DeSantis to translate these measures into a positive national image, due to their parochial nature and his likely need to tack right on abortion to win a presidential primary.
But what will be the alternative? Tim Scott seems to be the most likely standard bearer for sunny, optimistic conservatism in the 2024 primaries. He’s currently embarking on a “faith in America” listening tour, and he talks a lot about the power of school choice to improve educational outcomes and foster opportunity. Unlike a lot of national Republican politicians, Scott is warm and likable — he’s likely to win a “who would you have a beer with?” contest. But it’s not clear to me who his style of optimism is supposed to appeal to. It’s out of step with the bitterness and siege mentality of many Republican primary voters. And in a general election, his style of faith in the deregulated individual under free enterprise seems more reminiscent these days of Paul Ryan than Ronald Reagan. Ryan, like Scott, seems like a personally pleasant guy, but his style of politics has been received exceedingly poorly by general election voters in recent years.
So basically, I think the reasons Republicans keep nominating bitter jerks are a bit more structural than David would have it, and acknowledging the problem won’t help the party much without a convincing way to offer and sell a positive message.
Tax reform can wait until 2025
I want to briefly respond to Matt Yglesias’ piece today arguing that now is a good time for lawmakers to try to enact a tax reform, possibly linked to entitlement spending cuts. Roughly, Matt argues that macroeconomic conditions today call for a style of tax reform — broadening the tax base to raise more revenue without raising tax rates — that was widely discussed back in 2011, at a time when it made less economic sense. He also argues that Republicans are less animated by anti-tax politics than they were back then and might be more open to it.
There are two main reasons that tax reform can and should wait a couple of years:
There isn’t yet the necessary public focus on the trade-offs caused by high budget deficits. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s — the last time there was a bipartisan fashion for deficit reduction actually warranted by prevailing economic conditions — there was a lot of political focus on exactly how large budget deficits were supposed to be harmful to the public. You can see this in a 1992 debate question from a voter that George H.W. Bush famously flubbed: “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?” Deficit politics weren’t just about abstract notions of responsibility and thrift — they were about a sense that high budget deficits necessitated high interest rates and therefore made it difficult for businesses to invest and hire, and for consumers to get mortgages and afford homes. Deficit reduction could be sold as a way to allow interest rates to fall and improve individuals’ financial circumstances. During Bill Clinton’s second term, his White House summarized his deficit reduction record as follows: “In 1993, President Clinton and Vice President Gore launched their economic strategy: establishing fiscal discipline, eliminating the budget deficit, keeping interest rates low, and spurring private-sector investment.” But I don’t think enough groundwork has been laid by politicians in either party to make the case that individuals and businesses have a stake in this question today. That’s going to take some time.
Much of the tax-cutting package signed by Donald Trump in 2017 will expire in 2025. Republicans aren’t as agitated about taxes as they were in the Tea Party era, but they also aren’t as interested in entitlement cuts as they were. I think the net effect is that the political logic for Republicans of a tax-cuts-for-entitlement-cuts deal has gotten weaker in the last decade rather than stronger. Opposition to tax increases in the party remains strong — backed up by Grover Norquist’s successful efforts to get Republicans to promise to never vote to raise taxes — and I don’t believe Republicans will be talked into breaking their pledges to raise taxes in order to mess with Social Security benefits that Donald Trump is telling them not to touch anyway. But in 2025, they’ll have little choice — many tax cuts they already voted for will be expiring, and if Democrats control any part of the government, they’ll need to reach a bipartisan deal about which parts of them to continue. As happened in 2013, these tax-cut expirations will be an opportunity for Democrats to strike a deal with Republicans that raises taxes higher than under current law, without having to give up anything on Medicare or Social Security benefits.
2025 is only two years away, so it’s time for policymakers in both parties to start thinking about what a bipartisan agreement on a fair and pro-growth tax code can look like after those expirations. But contra Matt, I don’t think there’s any need to tie that question together to entitlement policy.