John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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The Mess That is the GOP

Posted on August 4, 2016
Logo-GOP(This originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal's Think Tank)

The Republican Party is a mess, from the top of the ticket down to its grass roots.

The presidential nominee, and party standard-bearer, is a flawed, undisciplined, and seemingly irrational non-politician who is light on policy details and heavy on social media followers.

The speaker of the House is facing heavy pressure in his primary race from the same gang of rebels who defeated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014.

Former House Speaker John Boehner apparently raised a glass to the primary defeat of Rep. Tim Huelskamp, the “Freedom Caucus” conservative who led a putsch to oust Mr. Boehner last year.

Conservatives of all stripes are incoherently lashing out at each other. Some criticize Donald Trump. Others attack those who are attacking the New York real estate mogul.

Conservative radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh sing the praises of The Donald, while conservative writers including George Will, Michael Gerson, and Bill Kristol see him as a threat to the Republican Party and the Republic.

High-profile female candidates and political operatives who so dislike Mr. Trump and his message that they plan to vote for or more broadly support Hillary Clinton include Sally Bradshaw, a top adviser to Jeb Bush; Maria Comella, a former top aide to Chris Christie; and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, a former Republican candidate for governor of California.

Rank-and-file Republican politicians are trying to keep their heads down and carry on the work of getting themselves re-elected. This isn’t easy when basically every day they are asked to respond to something that Mr. Trump has said. They want to run their own races, but that is easier said than done.

Against this backdrop, I have reached six conclusions about the state of the Republican Party and its future:

1. Donald Trump is no one-hit wonder. Whatever you think of things he has said or done, it cannot be denied that he has his finger on the concerns, fears, and desires of a great many Republicans. His “America First” agenda reflects where many working-class people (and middle-class voters who think of themselves in that way) live and work.

2. We are no longer the party of Bush, Romney, or McCain. Noblesse oblige is over. The GOP is now the party of Andrew Jackson. Interestingly, it was John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, who first stumbled onto this. It’s no surprise that she was an early endorser of Mr. Trump.

3. Ideology is no substitute for practicality. Voters are looking out for their interests more than they are looking for ideological purity. Older voters don’t want Social Security touched. Working-class voters don’t want more trade agreements they worry could kill American jobs. Many whites are uncomfortable with more immigration, legal or not.

4. The Republican Party cannot expand its base until it clarifies what the GOP stands for. The “autopsy report” conducted after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012 called for strategies to attract more Hispanic and black voters to the GOP. But the party can’t be all things to all people. And until it is clear where the GOP stands among different classes of whites, Republicans won’t be able to build a strategy to attract people of color.

5. The donor class is not as important as the working class. Donors have had an outsize impact on the Republican policy agenda because they have long had the most access to politicians. But what seems rational to some who can afford to give tens of thousands of dollars to campaigns can sound much different to the average worker. Politicians lose touch with ordinary constituents at their peril. Just ask Eric Cantor.

6. “Conservative” has become a meaningless label. Most every Republican calls him- or herself a conservative, yet there is no unanimity of opinion among Republicans on anything. If everybody is a conservative, nobody is a conservative. The House Freedom Caucus likes to call itself conservative, but those members aren’t conservative–they are reactionary. Worse, they are anarchists: They would rather see the federal government breach the debt limit or shut down–threats to U.S. credibility that could affect our national security–than find responsible ways to pass smart legislation.