Republican Candidates Abandon Reagan’s Optimism In Favor Of Doom And Gloom
To listen to many of the Republican candidates for President, it would appear that the lights have been turned out on Ronald Reagan's shining city on a hill.
To listen to the way some Republicans tell it, America is a pretty awful place these days.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas sees evil menacing America not just from within, like the “tyranny” and “lawlessness” of jailing a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, but from the outside as well. As he condemned the Obama administration’s nuclear pact with Iran last week, Mr. Cruz warned, “Americans will die.”
These dark diagnoses of the country’s condition have become an especially powerful part of the message sounded by several Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for presidency this election cycle.
Their damning assessments — that the country is diminished and unrecognizable, imperiled by forces foreign and domestic — seem to resonate with voters already feeling angry, alienated and under threat.
Appeals to voters’ insecurities and anxieties have always been part of politics. But what is striking about the current dynamic inside theRepublican Party is how pervasive the sense has become that the country is slipping, and maybe irretrievably so.
“You’ve got elements of all the different branches of the Republican Party that see darkness now,” said David Gergen, a former adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. “Social conservatives have been at the forefront of that for a long time. But now the foreign policy and economic types feel like we face serious risk of decline.”
The mood of the country is certainly grim. About two-thirds of Americans believe the country is adrift, according to recent public opinion surveys from a variety of news organizations and independent firms. That sentiment has remained stubbornly high for most of the Obama presidency, with strong majorities of Americans consistently saying the country is on the wrong track for the last five years, according to polling by The New York Times and CBS News.
After years of slow economic growth, stagnant incomes, political dysfunction and worsening threats from abroad, many Republican pollsters and analysts are asking themselves whether there has been a fundamental change in how Americans, historically an optimistic people, now see themselves. And they are wondering whether, as a consequence, 2016 will be a year when voters turn to someone whose message is mainly focused on what is wrong with the country.
“Today, conservatism is much more meanspirited, angry, not optimistic and much more viscerally divisive,” said Matthew Dowd, a former top strategist for President George W. Bush.
The dark imagery emanating from Mr. Trump and others collides with the long-held Republican conviction that a message of optimism and uplift is essential to winning elections and leading the country. That belief also aligns with their view of America as a special and divinely inspired nation, always capable of renewal.
“Americans like optimistic brands. We like brands that lead us into the future,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican messaging strategist who has offered informal advice to several of the candidates running for president this year. Quoting something he said George W. Bush had once told him, Mr. Castellanos added, “Nobody ever bought a product that made them feel worse.”
After the 2014 midterm elections, Mr. Castellanos commissioned research for a project he is leading on reinventing his party’s brand called “New Republican.” It looked at three states where Republicans took Senate seats from Democrats and one where they lost.
In the three winning states — Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina — voters said they thought the Republican was the more optimistic candidate. Only in the state Republicans lost, New Hampshire, did voters say they felt the Republican, Scott Brown, was the more pessimistic candidate. Still, some Republicans question the power of optimism, noting that voters picked the candidate of hope and change in 2008 and that many are unhappy with the results.
The negative messages are more prominent, of course, in the campaign of Donald Trump, who opened his run for the White House back in June with a speech that cataloged how bad he claimed the United States had become, how stupid our leaders and businesses are, and how we’re being overrun by a combination of crafty Chinese, sneaky Iranians, and Mexican rapists. This is rhetoric that Trump has continued throughout the campaign, and it clearly seems to be resonating with a significant portion of the Republican base. To some degree, of course, Trump talks this way as means of promoting his already over-inflated ego and to make the argument that he is the only person who can turn the country around, even if he never actually tells anyone how he would do that.
The tone clearly goes far beyond Trumpesque boasting, though, because the vision of America that Trump paints isn’t all that dissimilar from the one we get from candidates such as Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and others who come from the ultra-conservative wing of the party. In this segment of the GOP, even those things that most of us would consider to be progress are seen as signs of doom and destruction. To these people the debate over same-sex marriage wasn’t just a debate over whether or not the law should extend equal rights to gays and lesbians, it was a fight to prevent something that would bring about the destruction of America. The debate over the Affordable Care Act wasn’t just a battle over the proper way to deal with a broken health care system, it was battle to prevent something worse than Nazism. In many respects, of course, the rhetoric that politicians on the right used in situations like this was intended mostly to rile up the passions of the base and to help with fundraising, but the messages never would have been used if they didn’t work.
All one needs to do is take a tour of the web sites and literature preferred by people in that wing of the GOP, and you are presented with a very dark picture. Despite the economic statistic, the economy is said to be on the very of a collapse that some people on the right have been predicting for the better part of a decade. The nation, they will tell you, is being overridden by immigrants while Islamic terror cells sneak into the country just waiting to launch the next massive attack. President Obama, they believe, has spent the last six and half years amassing power and is plotting to grab still more even has his days in office grow shorter and shorter. The fact that this is the same President Obama that they also believe is utterly incompetent, spends most of his time golfing, and doesn’t really care about his job at all, is presented without even the slightest sense of irony. The Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and Muslims are all just years away from being able to utterly destroy us. And, of course, all of this can only be prevented if you vote for whomever the chosen savior of them moment happens to be. Quite clearly, there is a powerful strain in modern American conservatism that has abandoned the optimism of Ronald Reagan and replaced it with an apocalyptic vision that seems more suited to a bad movie than a serious discussion about American politics.
That isn’t to say this this is true of every politician on the right, of course. In the Presidential race, candidates such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich are much closer to marking the Reaganesque view of America as a “shining city on a hill” than their opponents, and each of them has criticized Trump and the other candidates for their doom and gloom rhetoric. At the same time, though, those three candidates are not the ones who are leading the polls right now. By all accounts, the doom and gloom lecture that is a central part of Donald Trump’s campaign is what Republican voters seem to be buying right now. If that continues to be the case, then the GOP’s rhetoric during the 2016 campaign could turn out to be quite dark indeed.