When a supporter once told Adlai Stevenson that “all thinking people” were voting for him, the Democratic presidential nominee responded: “That’s not enough. I need a majority!” Such is the state of today’s Republican Party. All the thinking Republicans might have been for Jeff Flake, but that only serves to explain why he was forced to announce his retirement.
It would be convenient to blame this all on Donald Trump, but this problem predates him. Trump isn’t leading the base, but he is exploiting a pre-existing condition within the GOP.
My theory is that the Republican Party won too soon. As liberal commentator Bill Scher has argued, it often takes three consecutive presidential losses for a political party that is truly in the wilderness to have a “come to Jesus” moment. After Jimmy Carter’s loss to Reagan, Democrats nominated liberals like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis before they were finally willing to settle on New Democrat Bill Clinton. The fact that Republicans were still adrift, facing an identity crisis, and unready to actually govern, suggests they weren’t ready to lead. Donald Trump upset the normal order of things.
We’ve seen what happens when promising young conservatives (see Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin) are thrust into the spotlight prematurely. I think that’s a microcosm of what happened to the GOP.
Have you ever heard about people who win the lottery? It’s the worst thing that could happen to you. You almost always end up broke and divorced—and sometimes dead. Your odds of going bankrupt actually increase when you win a lottery. There are a lot of potential reasons for this, including guilt over acquiring money you didn’t actually earn. But, I suspect, the biggest reason is the same reason a lot of talented young athletes squander all of their money: It comes too easy, too soon. Rather than growing into your success, you luck into it.
My financial literacy is pathetically low, but if you gave me a million bucks, I’m pretty sure I could handle it. I’m not saying I would turn it into $10 million, but I could probably manage to save it. That’s because I’m a middle-aged person who has endured ups and downs, tragedies and triumphs, and gradually matured and progressed intellectually and professionally.
But if you gave 20-year-old me a million bucks, I would probably spend it in a weekend in Vegas. Yes, this is a metaphor for the state of the GOP. We have given the car keys to drunken teenagers (in a manner of speaking—I realize most of these guys are old).
And yet, in our post-modern world, a lack of maturity doesn’t seem to be a liability. In fact, it might be a feature. I mean, it’s horrible for America, of course. But politically speaking, the maxims about what works and what doesn’t are out the window. There’s a reason I titled my book about the state of modern conservatism Too Dumb to Fail. And while I mourn this as a patriotic American, the political strategist in me must at least applaud Trump’s ability to exploit the situation. His instincts (or luck?) weren’t limited to the election. He’s still pulling rabbits out of his hat.
Speaking of books, the book (and movie) Moneyball, about the Oakland Athletics’ ability to win in early 2000s despite being outspent by big-market teams, provides us some clues as to the brilliance behind Donald Trump’s strategy (or, more likely, his instincts). Prior to Moneyball, criteria for judging players was based on statistics that had been handed down but had little correlation with winning games. This realization lead to an obvious paradigm shift.
Trump has likewise flipped the script on the so-called experts. Those of us who assume that presidents have to put legislative points on the board assume that failure to do so will depress the GOP base. But Trump’s fans see victories everywhere. Picking a fight with the NFL is just as good as repealing Obamacare—maybe better in a pop-culture, reality TV world. Ditto telling squishy senators like Jeff Flake “You’re fired!”
The irony, again, is that Republicans control almost everything. It feels a bit presumptuous to lecture a group of people who are clearly dominant about the folly of their ideas, but the truth is that people who believe they are safe are usually the ones who are in most need of (and, ironically, least likely) to receive it. In the movie Bull Durham, when wise veteran catcher “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner) tries to school young “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), the latter murmurs: “I’m the one driving a Porsche.”
People usually have to hit rock bottom before they change, and political parties are no different. The GOP is (electorally speaking, at least) dominant. While it’s possible that the fever might someday break (let’s say, for example, if Trump were to lose re-election), this is Donald Trump’s party.
Don’t take my word for it. Pew Research just issued a “typology” report breaking down the various categories that exist within the political parties. According to Bill Scher, Jeff Flake represents a segment called “New Era Enterprisers,” which composes “about one-sixth of ‘politically engaged’ Republicans.”
That’s not to say the other five-sixths of GOP voters are hard-core Trumpkins. But it is to say that conservatives like Jeff Flake are dramatically less in touch with the average Republican voter than is a casino magnate who donated to Nancy Pelosi and invited Hillary Clinton to his wedding.
Jeff Flake didn’t have to wait until 2018 to see how this was going to go down. It was pre-ordained.
As Dick Tuck said, “The voters have spoken—the bastards!”