by Christopher Buskirk
PHOENIX — As primaries roll by and the midterms approach, it’s worth remembering that for Republicans 2016 represented an opportunity more than a victory. It was a chance for them to help the country break the 30-year-spell the Clintons and the Bushes cast, President Barack Obama notwithstanding.
It was also a chance for rank-and-file Republicans to replace an insulated, often feckless, party leadership that had elevated its own interests over everyone else’s. With their fixation on the person of President Trump, most Democrats don’t understand that for Republicans, taking the party back is part of a larger intellectual and political project. It’s also a big part of what’s at stake in this year’s midterms.
As far as Republicans are concerned, the primaries are a continuation of the fight to claw back control of the party. Will it be retaken by the Bushes, their allies and clones and the claque of sinecured retainers who smothered the once-vibrant conservative movement of Buckley and Reagan? Or can the grass roots consummate the promise of 2016’s revolt against ruling-class misrule?
Mr. Trump isn’t on the ballot, but the ideas that animate the current conservative renaissance are. They are represented by some interesting Senate candidates, who have quite different biographies but common goals. Josh Hawley in Missouri is a Stanford- and Yale-educated lawyer who clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts, while Matt Rosendale in Montana is a rancher-turned-politician. Both are running on a platform of returning power to the people and nurturing a sense of community and solidarity among Americans that many Republican politicians either ignored or openly disdained.
Republicans have long criticized Democrats for dividing the country into competing grievance groups. Some now realize that the Republican analogue has been to divide the country into radically autonomous individuals based on a cartoonish misreading of libertarianism that replaces the free markets and free minds of Friedrich Hayek with the greed and hubris of Gordon Gekko. But that is changing quickly. There is a renewed emphasis on addressing America and Americans as a community characterized by fraternal bonds and mutual responsibility — what Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory.”
Lou Barletta, who is seeking the Republican Senate nomination in Pennsylvania.CreditMatt Slocum/Associated Press
Mr. Trump tapped into this. Most Republicans accept his transgressive personality and his intentional tweaking of social and political norms because they see it as in service of those larger ideas. That will seem counterintuitive to Trump haters, but fiddling with tax rates, however necessary and beneficial, can’t sustain a political movement, let alone a nation. Issues of citizenship and solidarity — that is to say, asking what it means to be an American — have returned to the fore. This is partly because of Mr. Trump and partly in spite of him. What is important is that the tumult caused by his unusual candidacy and his unusual approach to governing created an environment in which an intellectual refounding of Republican politics became possible.
The three-legged stool of the new Republican majority is a pro-citizen immigration policy, a pro-worker economic policy and a foreign policy that rejects moral imperialism and its concomitant foreign wars. John Adams described just such a foreign policy when he wrote that America is “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” but “the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Giving up on a failed policy of moral imperialism allows Republicans to focus on forming good citizens and restoring a sense of Americanism that relies upon strong ties of fellowship and belief in a shared destiny. To that end, our candidates would be well advised to ignore strategists and consultants who talk exclusively in terms of messaging tailored to statistical constructs like “disaffected Democrats with some college” or “married suburban men who drive S.U.V.s.” When it comes to politics, most people don’t want to be addressed as members of a demographic group looking for a payoff. They want to be addressed as Americans.
Senate candidates like Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania and Mike Braun in Indiana, who have embraced the rhetoric and the policies that connect citizenship and civic virtue, have seen it propel them to victory in their recent primaries. This is a salutary change from the last generation of Republican politicians who seemed to think that they could persuade voters with spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. While appeals to narrow self-interest can work for a while, they eventually fall short because they ignore human nature. From Martha McSally in Arizona to Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee, candidates are sharing this all-embracing message.
That’s why Mr. Trump’s rhetoric works. When he speaks off the cuff, he talks about “we,” “us” and “our.” He has said repeatedly that we love our farmers, our police, our flag and our national anthem — even our coal miners. It is an odd construction, or at least one we’re not used to hearing. It speaks to the essential fraternity of the nation, but when Mr. Trump says it — maybe when any Republican says it — too many people don’t believe that they are included in the “our.” They hear something much narrower than what is meant. People reject the essentially wholesome message because of the messenger. That needs to change because they are, in fact, our farmers, our police and our coal miners, and we should love them. The bonds of civil union that ought to hold us together demand that we love our fellow citizens in their imperfection even as they love us in ours.
This year’s class of Republican candidates seems to get that in ways that they didn’t in 2016. As a result, the Democrats’ advantage in the generic congressional vote dropped from 13 points in January, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average, to 3.5 points at the end of May. A Reuters poll, which recorded a 14-point Democratic edge in April, gave Republicans a 6-point advantage last month. Apparently “resistance” and impeachment aren’t as popular as Democratic megadonors like Tom Steyer and their vassals would have Democratic candidates believe, although RealClearPolitics and Reuters now show Democrats with roughly an eight-point advantage.
Ned Ryun, a veteran Republican activist, noted that the polls now closely mirror the polls in May 2014, when Democrats went on to lose 13 House seats. He also notes that while there are nearly 40 Republicans who are not seeking re-election, only six of them represent districts won by Hillary Clinton. Financially, Republicans are in much better shape, with the Republican National Committee holding $44 million in cash while the Democratic National Committee is $5 million in debt.
There are even more cracks in the Democrats’ front line. Longtime Democrats like Mark Penn, a former Clinton pollster and confidant, are sick of the scandal mongering. Mr. Penn wrote recently that “Rather than a fair, limited and impartial investigation, the Mueller investigation became a partisan, open-ended inquisition that, by its precedent, is a threat to all those who ever want to participate in a national campaign or an administration again.”
At some point, the combination of scandal fatigue — there is almost no crime of which Mr. Trump is not regularly accused — and the continuing revelations of improprieties by government officials (in the F.B.I., at the Department of Justice and elsewhere) will lead voters to believe that Mr. Trump got a raw deal.
Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, is pledging higher taxes. Al Green, a seven-term Texas Democrat, and at least 58 other House Democrats, are promising impeachment. But the stock market is up, wages are up, unemployment is down, and peace may be breaking out on the Korean Peninsula. How many people will vote for higher taxes and all the social and political stress associated with impeachment?
Some Democrats are beginning to sense this. One Washington Post columnist predicted that “there will be no Trump collapse” while others are expressing concern that Mr. Mueller’s investigation — his dawn raids and strong-arm tactics — don’t play well in Peoria. If Mr. Mueller is not able to prove collusion with Russia, the stated reason for his appointment, then Democrats, who have talked about little else for the past 18 months, will be left looking unserious or worse. They’re right to worry.
Up until recently, the conventional wisdom has been that a blue wave powered by a huge enthusiasm gap would propel Democrats to midterm glory. But the evidence doesn’t bear that out. Yes, Democrats have won some special elections and those victories are real and should warn Republicans against complacency. But left almost totally unremarked upon is that Republican primary turnout is way up from where it was at this point in the 2014 midterm cycle. This is often the result of competitive primaries, but that underscores the vibrancy of the grass roots’ struggle to reclaim control of the party.
According to Chris Wilson at WPI Intelligence, Republican primary turnout was up 43 percent or more over 2014 in states like Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. The president’s popularity has been rising overall but especially in these critical battleground states. In West Virginia, his approval rating was over 60 percent in 2017. That sounds more like a red wave than a blue one, especially for imperiled senators like Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Claire McCaskill in Missouri.
Yes, the victories won in 2016 can be reversed, but only by voters at the polls and not by any of the irregular means that occupy the fantasies of many people who still can’t believe that their side lost. Persuasion still matters — and it better matter or we’ve got bigger problems. For Republicans, this should be a back-to-basics election. Talk about principles, not just tactics. Talk about America. If Republicans really want to win, then their pronouns must be we, us and our, and they have to make sure that the people who hear them know that they are included in we, us and our. That’s the key to building an enduring electoral majority and a better country.
Christopher Buskirk (@thechrisbuskirk) is editor and publisher of the journal American Greatness, a co-author of “American Greatness: How Conservatism, Inc. Missed the 2016 Election and What the D.C. Establishment Needs to Learn,” and a contributing opinion writer.