The 2016 GOP Race And The Battle To Define What ‘Conservative’ Means
The race for the Republican nomination now seems to be coming down to a debate that has actually been going on inside the Republican Party for some time now, namely what it means to be a ‘conservative’ and what that means for the future direction of the Republican Party itself. If there is a such a debate going on, though, it already seems to be over:
MILWAUKEE — For months, the Republican presidential race has been animated by the party’s inchoate anger about the state of the country and an equally undefined hope that a candidate would emerge who could usher in an era of civic renewal. But the debate here and its aftermath marked an abrupt transition from vague promises about making America “great again,” in Donald J. Trump’s phrase, to a new season of the campaign shaped more by the glaring policy fissures that are dividing Republicans over what exactly to do about the nation’s problems.
From immigration and bank regulation to taxes and national security, the robust seminar on the issues that began Tuesday night and continued Wednesday exposed a contentious dispute over what it means to be a conservative and offered a preview of the contours of the battle for the Republican nomination.
Years’ worth of arguments conducted at issues forums and in the pages of policy journals and newspapers are now coming to life. The Republican hopefuls are sparring over such high-fiber fare as tax policy: whether to adhere strictly to the party’s supply-side creed or move at least modestly toward policies aimed at bolstering lesser earners. They are clashing over the role America plays in the world, and whether fiscal conservatism is compatible with a drastically enlarged military.
Perhaps the starkest differences and the biggest battles of the election cycle so far has been on the issue of immigration, and it’s one that the immigration restrictionist wing of conservatism seems to be winning. In some sense, this is a battle that has been going on among Republicans for the better part of a decade that started when the Bush Administration, working together with Democrats in Congress and Republicans such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to pass the nation’s first comprehensive immigration reform package in two decades. Thanks in no small part to collapsing political support for President Bush due to the Iraq War, that effort fell apart without ever producing anything tangible. Part of the reason for its defeat, though, can be found in the rebellion on the right that even the suggestion of immigration reform created, fueled in no small part by talk radio and online activists who used their influence to get people to contact legislators to urge them to stop what they considered “amnesty” for people in the country illegally. As the party moved into the 2008 Presidential race, McCain’s support for some kind of immigration reform played a large role in the fact that his campaign nearly died on the vine. Even when McCain won the nomination, there were still a large number of conservatives who never forgave him and others in the so-called “establishment” who advocated for reform.
When the Tea Party and related groups began to gain power in the conservative movement and the Republican Party, the voice of the immigration restrictionists became louder, and more powerful. During the 2012 Presidential election, for example, Texas Governor Rick Perry came under attack for his opposition to harsh treatment of illegal immigrants and his support for a widely supported bipartisan measure in Texas that gave in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, who had previously been known as a relatively moderate conservative, found himself forced to advocate for ideas like “self-deportation” and to reject policy ideas that even came close to showing compassion. At the time, of course, and well after, there were some voices in the GOP such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio calling on the party to moderate its tone on immigration, a warning that became louder in the wake of a 2012 election defeat that included the lowest percentage of Latinos voting Republican in quite some time. In the Senate, Marco Rubio even followed through on his warnings by working across the aisle to create a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill.
If the events of the years that followed the 2012 election and, especially, the 2016 campaign to date have proven anything, though, it is that the restrictionists have only become more powerful inside the conservative movement. House Republicans did largely nothing in response to the passage of the Senate bill in 2013, and Marco Rubio largely repudiated his own efforts as he quietly prepared to run for President, a move that has only strengthened the suspicions that the restrictionists have about the Florida Senator. Meanwhile the rise of Donald Trump, who espouses views on immigration that Republican voters seem to largely agree with, has only intensified the efforts of other candidates to prove their own bona fides to the restrictionist wing of the party. In the battle between the restrictionists and those conservatives who favor a more open, sane, and fair immigration system, the restrictionists seem to have won the battle.
Another area where the 2016 campaign is showing a battle to define ‘conservatism’ is foreign policy:
It was not long ago that Republican foreign policy amounted to variations on a theme: Trade agreements bolster big businesses and international alliances. Military budgets should grow even in times of austerity. No matter what, do not let the Russians or the Chinese challenge American pre-eminence.
No longer. Tuesday’s debate underscored the schism among candidates whose rallying cry is “Let someone else fight the wars” and the American exceptionalists.
Mr. Trump and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky were clearly in the first camp. “If Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100 percent, and I can’t understand how anybody would be against it,” Mr. Trump said of Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president.
Then came Mr. Paul, ready to take on Mr. Kasich, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush, who talked of imposing and enforcing no-fly zones in Syria and Iraq, a position fairly close to the one described recently by Hillary Rodham Clinton. “When you think it’s going to be a good idea to have a no-fly zone over Iraq, realize that means you are saying we are going to shoot down Russian planes,” Mr. Paul said. “If you are ready for that, be ready to send your sons and daughters to another war in Iraq.”
The exchange captured the box that Republicans find themselves in when it comes to national security. Nothing fires up the base more than a description of President Obama as “weak,” and by extension Mrs. Clinton, his former secretary of state. But for the more traditional, hawkish candidates, that has usually meant issuing declarations of how they would use military force, with little discussion of other expressions of American power, like building alliances, tailoring economic sanctions or taking covert action.
But at a moment when polls show Americans are exhausted by 14 years of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the candidates seem unsure how to describe alliance-building in a way that could fire up Iowans.
There was a time when it really did seem like there was going to be strong foreign policy debate among conservatives. The failures of the Iraq War, the long war in Afghanistan that at some point changed from noble cause against al Qaeda to uncertain mission propping up a regime that didn’t seem to have much support outside Kabul, and Obama Administration actions in places such as Libya, Yemen, and Syria all combined to set the case made by the interventionist wing of conservatism back for some time. That fact was perhaps best exemplified by the rise of politicians such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who has been perhaps the most effective spokesperson for a less interventionist foreign policy in the GOP for quite some time. At one point, Paul’s influence seemed to be rising so much that he was drawing unsolicited attacks from the likes of Chris Christie, Dick Cheney, Rick Perry, and John Bolton, and that was long before the 2016 election cycle even began.
As time has gone on, though, the foreign policy “battle” inside the has become fairly one-sided. For one thing, the rise of ISIS and the terrorist attacks that have gripped the world over the past year have shifted the debate away from non-interventionism and the costs of war toward combating terrorism. The consensus now seems to clearly be that the problem is that the Obama Administration hasn’t done enough, and even Senator Paul has shifted his messaging away from non-interventionism. The attacks in Paris on Friday are only likely to further shift the balance in favor of the interventionists. Notwithstanding some of the contrasts that were on display at the debate last Tuesday, in foreign policy as in immigration the debate inside conservatism on foreign policy seems to be largely over.
The linked article highlights other others where there are admittedly some contrasts between the candidates, such as tax policy, international trade, and other areas, but to a large degree it seems fairly clear where the “debate” over the direction of conservatism is headed, at least as far as the base of the Republican Party is concerned. Even if Donald Trump isn’t the Republican nominee, the immigration message he has adopted now dominates the rhetoric in the Republican Party to such an extent that it will be next to impossible for whomever the eventual nominee might be to repudiate it to any significant degree. This may well also extend to Trump’s positions on international trade and other issues where pro-market positions, rather than populist pandering, used to be the bellwether for conservatives. If there was a battle, then, it seems pretty clear that one side is winning. How that battle goes after 2016 if Republicans lose the White House for the fifth time in the last six Presidential elections is, of course, a question for another day.