by Robert Ehrlich · April 20, 2017
My previous column (“The Trump Era’s 5 Emerging Constituencies”) critiqued the emerging political constituencies of the Trump era. Today’s chronicles the major challenges confronting our two major parties as a divided nation seeks to find its way forward.
For the Democrats circa 2016 conventional wisdom viewed Hillary Clinton as a slam-dunk winner. Her campaign was to be a reaffirmation of Obama-style progressivism – and the importance of changing demographics. Most pundits foresaw a celebratory coming of age for Obama’s coalition: younger, hip, secular, and very liberal. A large turnout of minority voters (especially Hispanics) would ensure the demise of Donald J. Trump. The flipside was thought to be etched in stone – a death by demographics for the old, white, conservative, fossil fuel powered GOP. That dinosaur had enjoyed a long run. But it was now time to step aside for a new generation sure to dominate presidential cycle voting for the foreseeable future.
On policy, the demonstrated shortcomings of Obama’s signature legislative achievements (Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, Stimulus) would not deter Democrats from doubling down on anti-market initiatives. Indeed, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was hard pressed to cite a difference between her Democrats and socialism during a now infamous appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball in July of 2015. But use of the adjective “infamous” requires further definition; Ms. Wasserman-Schultz’s answer was panned only on the right. Few within the Democratic coalition bothered to contest their leader’s refusal to answer the question. And all of this prior to uber-progressive Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren assuming rock star status on the campaign trail.
It all sounded so good on paper – and even better when it became apparent Ms. Clinton would run to the left of Obama. In striking contrast to her triangulating husband, she made it clear the “era of big government” was here to stay. No more searching for a middle ground on abortion. No more questioning of sanctuary cities or the open borders crowd. And forget all those private speeches to the captains of investment and industry (at $250,000 per); Wall Street was about to become “Enemy #1″ for the American worker.
But left out of the equation (purposefully it appears) was that shrinking yet essential white working class constituency held over from the Roosevelt era. These are the predominately ethnic, Catholic, and socially conservative foot soldiers of a New Deal coalition that lasted for approximately half a century – until Ronald Reagan. Thirty-five years later their remaining affinity for Democrats came to an official end. Too many had suffered at the hands of a no-growth economy. They still believed in The American Dream. They cling to the notion of American exceptionalism. They want a “wall” and a declaration of war against radical Islam. That so many of them lived in the rust belt and were so unhappy with the status quo was relegated to secondary status. Such became the fatal flaw in the Clinton calculus.
It seems unlikely the Democrats are willing or likely to change direction. One day (post-election) I was waiting for an interview on MSNBC while listening to a Democratic Member of Congress as he vowed to learn a lesson (from the election) and henceforth listen to the people. Shortly thereafter, that same Democrat repeated his unqualified support for sanctuary cities…so goes the progressive take on working class values.
The Trump presidency presents Republicans with equally challenging obstacles. The president’s direct and sometimes inartful messaging continues to antagonize some GOPers – especially those who have been less than enthusiastic about Trump from the jump. Mr. Trump’s propensity to take names and shots at those who oppose him (including Members of Congress he will need in the future) is not an effective long-term strategy.
Moreover, and notwithstanding the above-cited Democratic challenges, rapidly changing demographics and continued cultural permissiveness constitute very real threats to America’s center-right party. Approximately two-thirds of a rapidly growing Hispanic constituency is now reliably Democratic. And the engrained social liberalism of the Obama years is unlikely to change in light of Mr. Trump’s lack of interest in most social issues.
Far more daunting for GOP prospects is the vibe of the Trump movement. His rallies were/are more akin to revival meetings. But high octane rhetoric produces high expectations. The customers now expect a return on their emotional (and voting) investment. And a fever pitch is difficult to maintain over four years. What to do?
Well, one sure way to beat an unfriendly demographic tide is to do something productive. Newly sworn in Justice Neil Gorsuch was a nice first step. A willingness to use U.S. military might against the world’s miscreants is also a welcome change from Obama era disengagement and the slow start to tax reform. But reducing healthcare premiums and growing the economy are the real “have to’s” this term.
Few will stress over the not-ready-for-prime-time Obamacare “replace” effort once legislation actually moves. Remember: Really big things tend to get done in hyper-partisan Washington when one party possesses the cards.
Time for the GOP to move.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich is a Washington Examiner columnist, partner at King & Spalding and author of three books, including the recently released Turning Point. He was governor of Maryland from 2003 – 2007.