Earlier this month, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wondered aloud whether it might be time for America to kick the Republican Party to the curb once and for all. In the piece, she takes a few justifiable jabs at Trump, laments the party’s pandering to “old white men,” and ponders the possibility that there is nothing worth saving in the modern Republican Party. “Perhaps there is no morally, politically and intellectually decent party of the right to be had,” she concludes.
Firstly, it should go without saying that American democracy cannot function properly without a properly functioning opposition party to keep the ruling party from going too far in the pursuit of its agenda. Rubin acknowledges this, so she does at least understand that one-party dominance is not an option. But what she fails to acknowledge is that the GOP is the only viable alternative to the Democratic Party and will probably remain so for many years to come, which is precisely why we need it to stick around for a while.
As a left-leaning moderate myself, I sympathize with Rubin’s fantasy of a “grand coalition” composed of disaffected moderates and centrists. I have been praying for a viable third party since the day I registered to vote. But the cold, hard truth is that it will take years, if not decades, to establish a brand-new party that can take the place of the GOP and fulfill the role of the loyal opposition. The Libertarian Party could theoretically do it, but they just don’t enjoy enough support or boast the necessary resources to pull it off right now. For better or worse, that leaves the GOP as the only entity capable of competing with Democrats for the foreseeable future.
So the question isn’t whether or not America needs a functional Republican Party; it absolutely does. The question is, as Rubin puts it, “What respectable ideology could the Republican Party adopt, if it wanted to?” It’s a fair question, but a strange one coming from someone who once described herself as a conservative. Rubin ought to understand better than most that no matter how one personally feels about conservatism, the ideology that Trump purports to defend is not the conservatism that has historically defined the Republican Party.
The GOP of today may be hostile towards environmentalism, but it was a Republican president—Richard Nixon—who signed off on the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The GOP of today may prioritize slashing taxes over everything else, but the GOP of President Reagan’s era understood that it had to actually pay for its tax cuts, which it did through base-broadening measures that forced wealthy people and corporations to “pay their fair share.” And the story doesn’t end there.
The point is that if Republicans lose badly in November and are left with no choice but to rebuild and rebrand themselves, all they need to do to ensure a healthy future for their party is to borrow a few pages from the past.
Taking the Initiative on Immigration
Any rebranding effort should start with the GOP’s stance on immigration. Rubin implies that this would be a pointless endeavor because Hispanic voters won’t soon forget the “years of racism and xenophobia” they’ve suffered at the hands of the GOP. But in reality, the Trump administration’s immigration platform represents a deviation from the norm; the GOP had for many decades taken a relatively moderate approach to immigration. And even though Trump won in 2016 on a platform that included some rather extreme measures, such as the construction of a giant wall along the southern border, his broader attitude toward the immigration issue doesn’t reflect the attitudes of most Republican voters.
Poll after poll has indicated that most Republican voters support shielding Dreamers—immigrants brought into the country illegally as children—from deportation. Other polls have shown that either a plurality or a majority of Republicans are comfortable with giving some unauthorized immigrants an opportunity to pursue citizenship, such as this 2016 Gallup poll that was taken just a few short months before Trump’s surprising victory over Hillary Clinton. And a Pew poll from last November even found that more than half of Republicans agree that “taking in refugees fleeing war and violence is an important goal.”
You can hear the echoes of the GOP’s historically moderate stance on immigration in these poll numbers. Republicans on the whole aren’t anti-immigration, but they do want an orderly system that enforces the laws that are on the books. This means that a bipartisan compromise on immigration is possible so long as it provides the government with the tools it needs to effectively enforce immigration laws while simultaneously establishing a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who are willing to play by the rules and put forth a proper effort. It will take some work to make it happen, but it is doable if either Trump is pressured into pivoting on this issue or the post-Trump GOP reinvests itself in the conservatism of its forebears and agrees to meet Democrats halfway.
The Party of Fiscal Responsibility
Like it or not, we’re creeping closer and closer to a fiscal cliff. In the span of two decades, the national debt has grown by more than 400%. At the end of 2000, it was close to $6 trillion. Now it stands at over $26 trillion. This is unsustainable, and there is no easy fix that won’t be accompanied by either the pain of massive inflation or the misery of austerity.
The GOP talks a good game when it comes to fiscal issues but has consistently failed to back that talk up with meaningful action on the national debt. Despite this, it has somehow managed to maintain its reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility. For as long as I’ve been alive, poll after poll has shown that the general public trusts the GOP more than the Democratic Party on the economy—although that may be starting to change.
The frustrating thing about this issue is that Republicans have always been right about the national debt and government expenditures; if we don’t bring both of those numbers down to manageable levels soon and find a way to pay the bills that are coming down the pike, we won’t be able to wiggle our way out of this mess when the pauper comes calling. But in politics, it’s always easier to do what’s popular than what’s right, which is why the GOP rallied behind President Trump’s tax cuts without finding a way to actually pay for those cuts.
If there has ever been a time for the GOP to mimic Reagan’s strategy of expanding the nation’s tax base, closing tax loopholes, and reducing deductions that disproportionately favor the corporate world, this is the time to do it. To be sure, we won’t be able to bring down the debt without cutting some government spending in certain areas, but we also won’t be able to bring it down without finding ways to increase federal revenue. Republicans know this even if they refuse to admit it. Perhaps that will change if their November losses are as bad as some are predicting.
Conservatism Expressed Through Environmental Conservation
From the creation of the EPA under Nixon to President George H.W. Bush’s successful push to update the Clean Air Act of 1963, the Republican Party was once a dependable friend to the environment. So what happened? How did the GOP go from being the party that established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the party that wants to start drilling holes in that same refuge? It’s a complicated yarn with a lot of polarizing twists and turns, bitter political debates relating to the preservation of endangered species at the cost of economic growth, and other sordid subplots demonstrating the poisonous nature of partisan politics.
But for a long time, conservationism and conservatism went together like peas and carrots—and if young Republicans have anything to say about it, the conservative movement just might be on the brink of returning to its conservationist roots.
A Pew survey from last November showed that more than half of Republicans aged 18 to 38 believe the federal government isn’t doing enough to combat climate change. Additionally, nearly half of Republican women—46% to be precise—feel the same way. The survey also showed that nearly eight in ten young Republicans believe the government should prioritize the development of alternative energy sources over increasing fossil fuel production.
A different 2019 poll from the Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions and American Conservation Coalition found that a whopping 67 percent of millennial Republican voters believe the GOP needs to take more aggressive action on climate change.
Sounds like young Republicans have a much better grasp of what climate change is and how it will affect the world than their elders do, and this could force the GOP to start taking environmental issues as seriously as it once did if it hopes to remain relevant in the decades to come. It certainly doesn’t need to embrace the oft-discussed Green New Deal, which has as much to do with transforming the American economy as it does with actually addressing climate change. But if Republican leaders hope to retain the loyalty of the millennials who will one day run the GOP, they probably do need to start brainstorming conservative solutions to environmental problems.
Out With the New, in With the Old
The GOP we have today is obviously quite different from the GOP of years past. Its entire sales pitch revolves around Trump rather than the coherent conservative philosophy that compelled Nixon to give us the EPA, Reagan to close tax loopholes, and George W. Bush to push for a realistic and pragmatic immigration reform bill.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that America needs a functional Republican Party. It’s not yet clear, however, that the Republican Party is ready to be the party that America needs it to be. Once Trump is gone, there is no telling which path forward it will choose for itself. But one can hope—and should hope—that it is a more traditionally conservative, less reactionary path than the one that Trump has been pulling Republicans along for the last three and a half years.