The GOP's future is uncertain and clouded with philosophical confusion. Today's policies on everything from immigration to trade are echoes from the past.
On the eve of World War II, the Republican Party was a shell of the one that had dominated presidential politics from the Civil War through the onset of the Great Depression.
Franklin Roosevelt was poised to win an unprecedented third term and his Democratic Party had an overwhelming advantage in Congress. The GOP was seen as inward-looking, fearful and especially isolationist. Their presidential candidate in 1940 would be defined by those qualities, and the GOP would lose that election and the next two presidential elections for five losses in a row as the U.S. entered the 1950s.
Two individuals saved the GOP and made it relevant again.
Dwight Eisenhower ran on an internationalist platform in 1952, favoring foreign aid to Europe, the new military alliance called NATO and an aggressive stance against Soviet Communism, thereby asserting U.S. world leadership. He vanquished his isolationist foe, Sen. Robert Taft, for the GOP nomination in 1952 and then won the first Republican presidential victory in 20 years.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan sought to move the GOP beyond its narrow confines in the Northeast and Midwest. He built on Eisenhower’s internationalism, preaching limited government, free markets and supply-side economics – policies designed to bring prosperity to ALL Americans, not just the well-connected.
Reagan's conservatism was optimistic, inclusive and forward-looking. Progressives howl to this day, but he won 44 and 49 states in his two elections, as well as strong majorities of independents, blue-collar workers in the large industrial states, and young Americans voting for the first time.
Two signature issues – restricting immigration and trade – have pushed back on 60 years of Republican orthodoxy and dramatically changed the party’s image and focus.
The GOP that remained in place through 2016 was a combination of Eisenhower’s internationalism and Reagan’s small government focus on economic growth and opportunity.
That’s a long time for an ideology to be dominant in a major party. Consider that in that same time period Democrats veered from George McGovern’s wooly leftism to Jimmy Carter’s virtuous parsimony, to Bill Clinton’s centrism and finally to Barack Obama’s devotion to the administrative state and progressivism.
In any case, the new Republican administration embraced much, but not all of the Eisenhower-Reagan GOP. Two signature issues – restricting immigration and trade – have pushed back on 60 years of Republican orthodoxy and dramatically changed the party’s image and focus.
Trade policy is the first example. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), designed to marginalize China, has been shelved. Speaking of China, we are on the verge of a full-blown trade war with no end in sight and no clear end game. Presidential adviser Peter Navarro is an unabashed admirer of tariffs and believes they have contributed to our strong economy.
Most economists and virtually all CEOs would disagree. They believe tariffs are a tax by another name and merely increase prices paid by American consumers. The administration has already lost one of its favorite talking points as growth fell in the second quarter from 3.1 percent to an Obama-level 2.1 percent. Yet most Republicans now believe free trade harms American prosperity.
Trade skepticism can be managed, but a far greater threat has emerged.
Right-wing commentators have moved further into the realm of “economic nationalism,” arguing for all types of government intervention to protect manufacturing jobs in favored industries, preserve small town and rural economies, and maintain lifestyles of decades past. The focus is on protection and maintenance of a certain status quo, not growth, and certainly not investments in the disruptive and dynamic technologies that will define and transform the 21st century. This strain of conservatism focuses almost exclusively on tradition at the expense of the freedom and optimism that had been the hallmark of the Reagan GOP.
Immigration historically has been welcomed by most Americans. There are solid reasons for this. Business has relied on immigrants to keep the American economy strong. Think agriculture, construction, hospitality or landscaping as industries that rely heavily on new workers.
There are now more job openings than available workers for the first time in U.S. history. In addition, many new Americans were refugees who fled Communist countries during the Cold War, which helps explain why American immigration laws have been accommodating. (By the way, new Americans are not a monolithic bloc. Vietnamese voters favored Mitt Romney and John McCain in 2008 and 2012. Surveys indicated a majority of Cubans may have voted for Trump.)
Today, according to surveys, a majority of Republicans view immigration as threating America’s “national identity” and many now see this as their top voting issue – more important than taxes, health care or foreign policy. This represents a huge change from where the GOP was only two years ago.
These issues are part of a larger populist shine on the party that emphasizes confrontation with established powers, including longtime party allies in American business. Individual companies are singled out for criticism, something small government conservatives would never do.
Calls on the right are strong for regulation of technology companies and businesses that have moved operations abroad long ago for legitimate economic reasons. Finding solutions to the nation’s major problem take a distant second to verbal confrontation, a tactic unfortunately adopted by both major parties.
All of this has created much philosophical confusion in the future direction of the GOP as the party struggles with how to respond to the new challenges of large technology companies, Russian hacking of U.S. elections, the federal budget, U.S. alliances abroad, new trade pacts and the “invasion” from the southern border.
How the party will resolve these questions remains unclear.
What is clear is that the GOP of the future will become less focused on technological change, budget discipline, small government, and alliances and trade abroad and more committed to populist rhetoric, job and lifestyle preservation, culture wars and an "America first" policy. Basically, where the party came from decades ago.
For the GOP, it’s back to the future.