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The Republican Establishment Has Learned Nothing

How a buried report about the 2012 election can save the GOP.
February 27, 2019
The Republican Establishment Has Learned Nothing
PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 19: Roughly 100 anti-Trump protesters demonstrate peacefully in Market Square on February 19, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The protesters voiced their opposition to recent immigration orders and policy plans of newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump before marching through the streets. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Officially, it was called the Republican National Committee’s “Growth and Opportunity Project.” It was better known as the autopsy, and it’s one of the most remarkable political documents of our time: a candid and self-critical examination of how the GOP lost ground with women, minorities, and youth in 2012. It also offers a road map for how the party can restore itself after Trump.

Among the study’s recommendations, released in the wake of Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama, was that Republicans “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” And it did not shy from criticizing the rhetoric of the presidential nominee:

If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.

It also argued that the party’s approach to the culture wars had become counterproductive: “We must change our tone—especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters.”

Despite this moment of clarity—even Sean Hannity told his radio listeners he had “evolved” on immigration and supported a path to citizenship—the party went in the opposite direction, blowing up a “Gang of Eight” compromise and taking an increasingly strident approach to cultural issues. The final repudiation of the autopsy came with the nomination of Donald Trump. His victory, despite losing the popular vote, was enough to convince Republican leaders they could continue to set aside its findings.

And then the 2018 midterms happened. Maybe now the GOP can finally heed the lessons of 2012.

Before Trump cemented his hold on the GOP, conservatives made a final stand. National Review’s “Against Trump” symposium warned of the danger a Trump nomination posed to Republicans, conservatives, and the country. But it was Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist, who most cogently diagnosed the threat of Trumpism.

Trump presents a choice for the Republican Party about which path to follow: a path toward a coalition that is broad, classically liberal, and consistent with the party’s history, or a path toward a coalition that is reduced to the narrow interests of identity politics for white people.

While the Republican autopsy focused on tone, rhetoric and emphasis, the rise of Trump made clear that the rot went deeper than messaging or policy. Domenech recognized that the GOP risked sacrificing its aspirational and universal appeal, as well as its claim to represent the Founders’ vision:

[Trump] would throw the Constitution and the rule of law to the winds in pursuit of an aggressive promise of unilateral change – and [his supporters] are fine with that. What we are hearing now from the Trump-supporting right is akin to the Roman people’s call for the dissolution of the Senate: the demand to install a strong horse, the outsider who will fix all things, the powerful man who promises he will, at long last, get things done for the people.

It can be surprising to read these passages from the founder of a website that today veers between “anti-anti-Trump” and pro-Trump advocacy, suggests the left will march conservatives to reservations, whips up fear and suspicion about the trans community, and hypes stories about immigrant or “black crime.” But it’s important to remember that many conservatives who opposed Trump’s nomination, and even those who withheld support until election day, assumed his defeat was a foregone conclusion.

Trump’s shocking election victory exposed many NeverTrump arguments, especially those that appealed to high principle, as provisional and subjective. It also created an appetite for a realignment narrative. If the old fusionist GOP coalition of economic and social conservatives — one with solid support from educated and married women, a substantial minority of Hispanic voters, and one that at least made an effort with black Americans — was gone, what had taken its place?

One theory advanced by reporter Salena Zito and GOP consultant Brad Todd in their book The Great Revolt was that Trump had remade the Republican Party into a vehicle for the “forgotten” men and women who had been ignored or marginalized by business or cultural elites. Zito and Todd mocked the autopsy for focusing on the structural, demographic changes that confronted the party, its “pages of copy, bathed in census information.” They blamed “Republican mega-donors, suffering with post-traumatic stress syndrome [for] pushing freshman Senator Marco Rubio [to support] a pathway to legality for more than ten million illegal immigrants in the United States.”

Zito and Todd also suggested that Republican outreach programs were wasteful, and questioned then-Chairman Reince Priebus’ “remaking of the party’s staff structure around the concept of year-round field-staff outreach to minority communities.” They argue instead that the lesson of Romney’s defeat, citing analyst Sean Trende, was that “white voters stayed home,” and that Donald Trump recognized an opportunity to mobilize them.

Republicans should question whether a strategy that depends on activating white voters is durable. Conservatives should wonder what they will be asked to sacrifice to maintain a coalition based on culture and ethnicity as opposed to shared ideals.

In any event, the 2018 midterm elections put the staying power of the Trump coalition to the test, and the results were devastating. A “blue wave” crashed into suburban districts, wiping out GOP strongholds in California’s Orange County and traditionally Republican seats like Texas’ Seventh District (which had been held by George H.W. Bush and Bill Archer).

Exit polls showed that Democratic margins among women, racial minorities, and younger voters exceeded the autopsy-triggering 2012 vote or even the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Nearly 60 percent of college-educated women swung to the Democrats in 2018, an increase of 10 percent over just two years. Republican losses among blacks and Latinos increased as well.

The damage was more extreme among younger voters. In 2014, voters age 18-29 voted for Democrats by a 20 point margin. In 2016, Democrats extended their advantage to 25 points. Just two years later, their lead was a whopping 44 points.

Zito and Todd’s suggestion to stick with whites and ignore outreach backfired dramatically. Whites aged 18-29 split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats in the 2014 and 2016 elections. In 2018, Democrats routed Republicans among younger whites by 26 points.

Maybe an intrepid reporter could ask these party-switchers how they feel about a political movement that caters almost exclusively to white people.

The rise of anti-progressive populism combined with the structural challenge of a whiter, older voter base presents a dilemma for Republicans. Should the party remain consumed by who can take command of its fast-shrinking territory, or should it encourage efforts to expand the party’s appeal to younger voters, minorities, immigrants, and women?

The angry populism that inflames the pro-Trump right is not a new phenomenon. Ron Paul, the Tea Partiers, and Pat Buchanan have taken turns with the pitchforks, but their grievances have bounced erratically between economics, foreign intervention and “white identity politics.” Populism is like the flu: it comes and it goes, it brings fever to the body politic, and it takes a different form the next time around. Intermittent and shape-shifting passions cannot be the foundation of a major political party, not least a conservative one.

The overarching lesson party leaders should take from the Trump election is humility. Many of the same voices that insisted that Trump was a sure loser now insist that a primary challenge is similarly doomed. The potential for future volatility within the Republican Party remains grossly underestimated.

Questions about anti-Trump conservatives’ endgame, raised last week by Sean Trende, can be answered in both practical and moral terms. What hope would a president have in a general election if his campaign could be fatally undermined by even a quixotic primary challenge? And what good is a political party that exists purely for its own sake, without regard to principle or honor?

A party that believes in free markets should welcome competition, and should openly discuss the costs as well as the benefits of its leaders. Republicans should acknowledge the high price they are paying for Trump, as National Review’s Dan McLaughlin explained:

Yes, I know beating Trump in a primary is extraordinarily unlikely. Yes, I know he’s likely to attract only the lousiest alternatives as opponents. But we don’t have to pretend that renominating him is a good idea. He gives away too much no other R would.

It’s possible that Democrats will respond to the Trump presidency by nominating their own far-left radical in pursuit of an “own the cons” revenge fantasy. A Trump-led GOP could be saved by a self-destructive opposition that dabbles in socialism, anti-Semitism, and excessive political correctness.

Or maybe not. Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report recently noted “an under-appreciated bloc of 2020 Dem primary voters: moderate suburban Republicans who are functionally now Democrats in the era of Trump.” Could disenchanted Republicans, lacking the opportunity to vote in a contested GOP primary, help pull the Democrats towards the center? It’s not hard to imagine suburban women who might otherwise vote Republican backing a relative moderate like Amy Klobuchar in the primary and general elections.

On the value of a robust primaries, here again is the GOP post-mortem:

We believe the sign of a healthy party is one in which there are competitive primaries where candidates must work to earn voters’ support to become the party’s nominee. However, winning primaries is not enough. We are in the business of winning general elections. In order to affect public policy, the Republican Party must win general elections and not only primaries.

A contested presidential primary would be an upsetting and passionate affair, and yes, Democrats might exploit our divisions for their own ends. But a serious campaign to unseat Trump would encourage lapsed Republicans to return to the party, and also help vulnerable candidates define their GOP as something other than a Donald Trump-licensed property.

If party unity is a virtue, it belongs with the secondary virtues. Peggy Noonan wrote in 2013 that Republicans “need a return to the burly conservatism of 30 years ago. If you put unity over intellectual integrity you’ll lose the second right away, and the first in time.” Republicans should refuse to allow the false allure of party unity to become a suicide pact.

Christian Vanderbrouk

Christian Vanderbrouk is a writer in New York City. He previously served eight years in the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: .