What next for the Republican Party?

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Donald Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. 

The GOP has been totally split by this election, failure to reconcile its warring factions could result in its demise.

 

The campaign for the Republican nominee for President began in earnest on 23 March 2015, when Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced that he would be seeking the Republican nomination for President. One by one, other high-profile Republicans began to announce that they too would seek the nomination, including the likes of Jeb! Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, and Lindsey Graham. In total, seventeen major candidates campaigned for the nomination, making it the largest single field in United States Presidential primary history.

 

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The campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination featured seventeen major candidates, the most in Presidential primary history. 

 

Of course the ultimate winner of this process, and the person who I have deliberately chosen to refrain from mentioning just yet, was businessman and reality-television star Donald J. Trump.

When Trump announced his campaign for the Republican nomination with a press conference at Trump Tower, New York on 16 June 2015, few foresaw his victory, and even fewer foresaw the impact that Donald Trump would have on the wider Republican Party.

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Donald Trump announces his run for the Presidency at Trump Tower, New York City on 16 June 2015. 

 

The nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee highlighted a huge fissure in the Republican Party between much of the party elite (Senators, Congressmen and women, and Governors) and the Republican base. Time after time, comments by Donald Trump were disavowed by senior Republicans, but party members kept on voting for him. There was seemingly nothing that those in Washington D.C. could do to stop the Trump Train, with establishment candidates like Jeb! Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich unable to conjure any answer at all to the Trump surge.

 

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The likes of Marco Rubio, Jeb! Bush, and John Kasich had no answer to Trump’s popularity with the Republican base.

 

This means that we have an election coming up in November where the candidate at the top of the ticket (Trump) is running on a hugely different platform to many of the Republicans lower down the ticket, who are running for seats in Congress, or on State Legislatures. It seems clear that the Republican Party is hugely divided, which isn’t going to help when it comes to competing in subsequent elections.

Now, all ostensibly ‘big-tent’ parties face internal divisions, and it isn’t this which is the problem. Divisions can exist within parties, as long as these divisions are reconciled to the extent that the party avoids a full blown civil war. We have seen this in the United Kingdom with the takeover of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn, causing a civil war between his faction and the so-called ‘Blairites’. Meanwhile, the governing Conservative Party are able to continue increasing their support, despite huge divisions of their own, simply because they prioritise power ahead of internal squabbles. The same is often true in the United States. The Democratic Primary Campaign showed that the Democrats also faced significant internal divisions, with the left-wing Bernie Sanders gaining huge support in his attempt at beating Hillary Clinton to the nomination. However, once Clinton won the nomination, the Democrats put much of this squabbling behind them because they recognised that winning the Presidency was more important than an ideologically pure political party.

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Bernie Sanders gained a lot of support in his campaign for the Democratic nomination, but then offered strong support to Hillary Clinton following her win. 

 

The Republicans have manifestly failed to do this, and the Trump campaign can count on one hand the number of senior GOP lawmakers who are actively campaigning for him around the country. This is for a good reason, Trump has done absolutely nothing to gain the support of the party elite, and has instead chosen to shun them at every available opportunity by regularly making disparaging remarks about people like Jeb! Bush, John McCain, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. On the Democratic side, the Clinton campaign recognised the need to reach out to Bernie Sanders and those who supported him during the primaries, with the result being that Sanders has campaigned around the country on her behalf, leading to a much more comfortable election campaign. Trump on the other hand failed to do this, meaning that throughout the campaign he has been fighting on two frontiers: against the Democrats, and against the Republican Party elite. Given this situation, it is perhaps a miracle that he remains somewhat in contention for the Presidency at this late stage.

This being said, it remains unlikely that Donald Trump will win the Presidency next week. This leaves the Republican Party at a crossroads, where failure to choose the right path could easily result in the demise of the Grand Old Party — at least in the sense of the party being unable to compete for the Presidency.

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Could George W. Bush be the last Republican President?

 

In the Republican Party, this crossroads comprises two very distinct factions. One the one side, you have the moderates, the wing of the party which has dominated the Republican Party throughout most of its existence, particularly at the Presidential level. On the other side, you have what we’ll call the ‘Trumpists’, a movement which has effectively morphed out of the Tea Party movement which has come to the forefront of the Republican Party within the last ten years.

Assuming that Trump loses on 8 November, there are many from the moderate wing of the party who will feel that the Trump experiment has come to an end, and that they will be able to return to something resembling their prior more moderate ideology. However, this will be far easier said than done. The rhetoric emanating from Trump over the course of the campaign is that the election, and indeed the whole political system, is rigged. Therefore, Trump supporters are being primed to not accept the result of next week’s election. If this is the case, and Trump’s most keen supporters refuse to accept the result in significant numbers, then rebuilding the Republican Party of old could prove almost impossible.

The difficulties that the Republican Party face today have been a long time coming, with the grounds for these difficulties perhaps being set in 1980 when the Republicans returned to presidential power with Ronald Reagan.

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Ronald Reagan won the 1980 Presidential Election with a hugely different electoral coalition to the one which traditionally supported Republican Presidential candidates. 

 

This was done with an almost completely different electoral coalition than that which usually supported the Republicans, with Reagan’s supporters encompassing many evangelical Christians and white working-class ex-Democrats. These new party members were in sharp contrast to the existing pro-business conservatives who made up the Republican Party. More recently, these divisions have been manifested in the rise of the Tea Party movement, which mostly occurred during the 2010 midterms, although it could be said that the 2008 selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running-mate also helped to usher the Tea Party onto the national stage.

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The selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s 2008 running-mate helped to usher the Tea Party onto the national stage in the 2010 midterms. 

 

With the emergence of the Tea Party, the moderate wing of the GOP effectively lost control of the primary process. This has led to many Tea Party backed candidates winning Republican primaries and then getting trounced by their Democratic opponents in Congressional races (remember Christine O’Donnell?), although this being said there have also been many Tea Party backed candidates who have made it into Congress due to their standing in safe Republican seats. One of the most notable of these was Tea Party candidate Dave Brat who challenged then Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for his Congressional seat in Virginia in a primary prior to the 2014 midterms. In a huge upset, Brat defeated Cantor 55.5%-44.5%, and with this Cantor became the first ever House Majority Leader to lose his seat in a primary challenge.

 

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Tea Party backed candidate Dave Brat was able to defeat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014. 

 

The Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party, particularly in terms of their House of Representatives group, caused huge problems for the moderate party elite. It was effectively this that caused the resignation of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, with the Tea Party wing kicking up a huge fuss if Boehner so much as considered compromise with President Obama and the Democrats. This led to the Republican Party being forced to shift further to the right of the ideological spectrum in order to appease the Tea Party faction, and by extension the grassroots of the party. This has culminated in the election of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President, and what is effectively an existential crisis for the Republican Party.

 

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The Tea Party caused huge problems for John Boehner during his time as Speaker of the House. 

 

Given that this Tea Party wing of the party is totally unelectable on the national stage then the answer would seem pretty straightforward. If asked the question: which way should the Republican Party go? then you would expect any rational person to suggest that they go the way of the moderates, i.e. those who have some chance of winning the Presidency. However, it is not that simple. Those who vote in the Republican primaries are the party grassroots, and as I said previously this group are on a completely different wavelength ideologically to those in the moderate wing of the party. It is these in the party grassroots who are relied upon to campaign when it comes around to elections, and so to a certain extent it is very important to be able to keep them onside. In addition, the problem is further complicated by the Conservative ideologues who populate the likes of Fox News, Breitbart, and Conservative talk radio. It is these individuals who effectively control much of the modern Republican Party and to whom Republican politicians are forced to pander if they wish to appeal to their grassroots supporters, indeed the Chief Executive of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign is Stephen Bannon who is on leave from Breitbart for the duration of the campaign. The likes of Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, and radio hosts Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and Laura Ingraham have been particularly keen backers of Trump, and it is these people who set the tone in the modern Republican Party.

 

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Fox News presenter Sean Hannity has been a particularly keen supporter of Donald Trump. 

 

This group could soon include Trump himself, if he launches ‘Trump TV’. It has been suggested that his son-in-law and de-facto campaign manager, Jared Kushner, has been attempting to drum up support for this, although naturally when asked Kushner denied it. In any case, the Conservative media will go a long way to deciding which way the Republican Party goes. It seems extremely unlikely that following a Donald Trump loss, they will simply roll over and allow the moderates to take back the party. If anything, it is more likely for the Tea Party wing of the GOP to blame to moderates, and suggest that the party needs to shift even further right.

In short, there seems little chance that the two factions of the Republican Party will reconcile. What this means, is that they could instead split.

The possibility of a split in the party has been suggested by several high-profile moderate Republicans, perhaps most notably by Steve Schmidt who was a key advisor on George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, and who managed John McCain’s 2008 campaign for the Presidency. In an interview with Vox, Schmidt said:

I think the Republican Party has an outstanding chance of fracturing. There will be the alt-right party; then there will be a center-right conservative party that has an opportunity to reach out, repair damage, and rebuild the brand over time. America, ideologically right now, is a centrist country — it used to be a center-right country — but it’s by no means a Bernie Sanders country. Not even close. The market will demand a center-right party.

There seems little doubt that a split like this would indeed be possible. If someone with no knowledge of American politics were to compare the views espoused by Donald Trump during his Presidential campaign with the views of some moderate Republicans, perhaps Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, then it would be unlikely that they’d guess that Trump was technically part of the same party as Flake and Kirk. This means that the landscape is ripe for a split, and it seems unlikely that either of the two factions would be particularly adverse to this outcome. Indeed, the aforementioned Flake has himself said that if the Republican Party doesn’t undergo a dramatic shift in policy and tone then they will consign themselves to “political oblivion”. Given that the grassroots supporters of the Republican Party won’t tolerate this kind of policy change, a split seems the only option.

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Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has suggested that the Republican Party need to undergo a dramatic policy shift if they are to remain electorally viable on the national stage. 

 

However, the problem with a split is that it would be highly likely that it would end the possibility of a Republican being elected as President for a generation. The first-past-the-post electoral college system for electing the US President means that third-parties have almost no chance at all of gaining electoral votes. The effect of the Republican Party splitting would be that their vote would also be split, making a Republican President an impossibility.

A split would likely consign the Republican Party (and any new party) to the electoral dustbin. If the Republican Party is serious about winning the Presidency then it needs to unite and reconcile the more conservative wing of the party with the moderate wing. Because running on a moderate platform is the only way to win the Presidency. This particularly the case in modern America where demographic changes mean that the electoral map is skewed more and more in favour of the Democratic Party. The likes of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Colorado tend to be touted as swing states, however statistically it looks as though it would be fair to classify these states as safe Democratic. Even Texas, once the bastion of Republican support, is turner bluer every year thanks to a rapidly increasing Hispanic population flexing its political muscles. These changes are making it more and more difficult for even a moderate Republican Party to win the Presidency, meaning that an ‘alt-right’/Tea Party Republican Party has absolutely no chance of national success.

The only hope for the Republican Party’s survival would be for the party to unite around a moderate candidate to take the party forward. This could be John Kasich, who it is rumoured is already preparing another bid for the Republican nomination in 2020.

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It has been rumoured that Ohio Governor John Kasich is already preparing another bid for the Presidency in 2020.

 

As the aforementioned Steve Schmidt has said: “there’s no question that Republicans — as an institution and what we’re led by — are unfit to run the country, or to govern the country.” And he’s absolutely right. For rational, moderate voters, the Democrats are the only option. For liberals like myself this is great at first glance, but history shows that a lack of credible political opposition isn’t good for anyone, and ultimately leads to inefficient government.

For the Republicans the task is simple, they must take a more moderate path and stop obsessing about settled social issues that don’t concern the wider electorate. Failure to appeal to the wider election will result in the demise of the party of Lincoln, which is still affectionately known as the Grand Old Party.

For democracy, this would be a sorry result.

 

Debate Debrief.

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Trump and Clinton face off last night in Las Vegas. 

Both Clinton and Trump had their best debate, but the Democrat came out on top.

Last night the final presidential debate of this marathon of a campaign took place at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For the first half an hour, we were treated to something we hadn’t seen so far in this year’s presidential campaign: an actual policy debate!

The forceful moderating of Fox News’ Chris Wallace led the candidates to discuss some actual issues. The debate touched upon the Supreme Court, gun control, abortion rights, and immigration; and for this first half hour, both candidates did pretty well.

For the first time, Trump put forward some actual policy, and it was clear that he had been well coached in what he needed to say to reassure the Republican base. He was clear about how he would appoint pro-life Justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade, putting the issue of abortion rights back into the hands of individual States; although his knowledge of what actually constitutes a partial-birth abortion was lacking. He was clear on his opposition to any form of gun control, and made a big thing about his endorsement from the NRA. He then went on to talk about how he was the only one of the two candidates who could reduce immigration, reinforcing his commitment to building the impossible border wall, and once again falsely claiming that he had been endorsed by ICE. Throughout this, Hillary Clinton was calm and collected, giving strong policy answers, which were typically almost opposite to Trump’s views.

At this stage, it would be fair to say that Trump and Clinton were neck-and-neck, both debating strongly, and putting forward strong policy based answers.

But then, Trump decided he’d had enough of being Presidential, and the classic Donald Trump re-emerged. He became short-tempered, and began to constantly interrupt his opponent.

In one exchange, Clinton was asked about the details of her paid speeches which had been revealed by the hack on John Podesta’s emails. She managed to successfully pivot onto a point about Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin, and whether Russia was behind the hacking. Trump then stated that Putin didn’t have any respect for Clinton or President Obama, to which Clinton responded: “that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as President.” In typical Trump style, the only response he could conjure was “You’re the puppet.”

This was pretty much how it went for the rest of the debate, Trump veered a long way off-piste from his original plan to look more Presidential and put forward actual policy (a plan to which he was actually adhering for the first 30 minutes of the debate).

In a question that Trump was surely expecting, he was asked about the sexual assault allegations that have been levelled against him in recent weeks. However, despite the sheer obviousness of the question, he didn’t appear ready for it. Trump claimed that the allegations have been “largely debunked,” suggesting that he isn’t completely denying them; and once again claimed “no one has more respect for women than me,” which is clearly untrue regardless of the veracity of these latest allegations. Clinton countered with a stirring answer headlined with, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger.” This was perhaps one of the few moments, where we have seen some real emotion for Clinton in these debates, and she did well.

Both candidates struggled in questions about their respective foundations, but Clinton then came out on top in a question on experience. When Trump reused a favourite line about how Clinton had been in public office for thirty years but hadn’t, in his opinion, done anything, she had a strong (albeit pre-prepared) response. She did well to compare her career with Trump’s, explaining how their respective life experiences made her the better candidate. Trump had little in response, and by this point he was largely beaten.

This meant that he wasn’t well prepared when asked whether he would accept the result of the election. In answer to this he produced the soundbite that will be played over and over again, the only real takeaway from this debate: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now,” suggesting that he would consider not accepting the result. Clinton responded that the remarks were “horrifying,” and put forward a catalogue of times when Trump had also cried ‘rigged’, including when he didn’t win three Emmys in a row, to which he interjected: “should’ve gotten it.”

Although Trump began the debate well, and acted calm and Presidential, this soon changed, to the extent that at times the debate resembled a slanging match between a brother and sister. Petty responses like “you’re the puppet” and “should’ve gotten it” only add more ammunition to those who say Trump doesn’t have the temperament to be President. They would be right. It seems fair to say that anyone that can get as riled up by Twitter as Trump, shouldn’t have the nuclear codes.

Overall, although this was probably Donald Trump’s best debate performance, it won’t have done much for his chances in this election. He started well and things were looking good for him, but he quickly lost interest in proper debate and things descended into name calling, with Trump using his closing statement to call Hillary Clinton, “a nasty women”. For Clinton, all she had to do was turn up, and barring any revelation about a serious scandal she would be ok. She did this. For Trump it was a last chance to appear Presidential. Although he did this for the first thirty minutes, the way he lost his cool later on completely wrecked his progress.

Now the only question is how close this election will be, because surely Trump cannot win. I remain of the view that the popular vote will be relatively close, but it looks as though Clinton could win a huge victory in the Electoral College. All we can do now is wait and see.

What to expect from the final Presidential debate.

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It’s finally arrived, the final debate in this marathon Presidential campaign.

With Donald Trump having lost a lot of ground in the race to the White House, polling suggests that Hillary Clinton has a national lead of around six percent, Trump certainly has a lot to do in this debate.

Expect Trump to go on the attack from the beginning, in an attempt to make up some of this ground. It would be no surprise to see Trump continue his claims that the election is being rigged against him by the media. Given that this debate is being moderated by Chris Wallace from FOX News, it is perhaps less likely that Trump calls the moderation biased than he did in previous debates. However, Wallace is a registered Democrat (although he says that this is just so he can vote in the primaries) and he did say earlier this year that he felt the media weren’t hard enough on Donald Trump.Therefore, if Trump feels that he’s losing the momentum, don’t be overly surprised if he decides to claim that everyone is ganging up on him, as did in the first debate when he suggested that it was “three against one”, with Clinton, and moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz all ganging up against him. A repeat of a similar scene would not be unexpected.

In addition, with the continual dumping of John Podesta’s hacked emails by Wikileaks, expect information gleaned from these to make up a large proportion of Trump’s attacks. The emails which suggested Clinton knew CNN debate question in advance during the Democratic Primary feed into his rigged election narrative. In addition, the revelation that the government of Qatar (who have a sketchy human rights record) had donated $1 million to the Clinton Foundation could prove slightly embarrassing to Clinton. Trump claims that these emails have been completely ignored by the media. He is wrong. The media have reported them, and in normal times they would be front page news. However, the recording of Trump’s derogatory remarks on the set of Access Hollywood in 2005, and other reports of sexual misconduct, have drowned out the stories about Clinton. This means that this final debate is the only chance Trump will have to confront Clinton about these allegations.

One thing notable about this debate, is that a full fifteen minute section will be devoted to the topic of immigration. It was surprising how little immigration was discussed during the previous two debates, and it was quite surprising that Trump didn’t look to steer the conversation towards one of his stronger topics. This debate will give Trump the opportunity to talk about one of his keynote policies: the wall on the US-Mexico border. Of course, this debate also gives an opportunity for this policy to be properly scrutinised. It seems pretty obvious that building a wall on the whole border is completely unrealistic. For a start, we’re talking about a full-blown wall, not just a fence. This means that the cost will be completely exorbitant, with it having been estimated that costs could rise at high at $25 billion. In addition, the wall would have to cover a border which is almost 1,900 miles long. Much of this land isn’t owned by the US Government, which would push the cost even higher. All in all, the policy of building a wall on the US-Mexico border is completely unrealistic. This perhaps explains Trump’s reluctance to bring it up in a debate, as he realises that it would be picked apart by Clinton and the moderators. Nonetheless, it seems likely that this debate will force him to discuss it. Whilst the issue will likely further energise his base, it seems unlikely to be one which will gain him any undecided voters. I mean, if you wanted a wall on the US-Mexico border, then surely you’d be supporting Trump already?

These undecided voters, are who Trump chiefly needs to target in this debate. With polling suggesting he is six points behind Clinton, and this being the final televised debate, he is rapidly running out of opportunities to appeal to undecided voters. This is where a debate strategy that involves continuous attacks on Clinton could fall flat. Undecided voters are tired of hearing about this. Instead, they want to hear about policy. With debate topics including: debt and entitlements, the economy, and foreign hot spots; both candidates have a chance to show off their policy ideas, in an attempt to woo some of these undecided voters. If Trump’s policy knowledge is as lacking as it was in the first debate, then he could well seriously struggle with this.

As well as appealing to swing voters, Trump needs to try and persuade the traditional GOP supporters, who are deserting him in droves, to vote for him in November. Polling currently suggests that traditionally safe Republican states such as Arizona, Georgia, Utah, and even Texas, are now considered toss-ups. It is the polling from Texas which will have most alarmed the Trump campaign. Although, there is a growing Hispanic population in Texas, it was still considered to be safe. Indeed, just one month ago Trump had a lead of eleven points in Texas, but this has now fallen to just four points, which is within the margin of error. Trump needs to be clear on his commitment to traditional Republican policies, otherwise he risks losing these kind of states. Given that he is already up against it in the swing states, losing perceived ‘safe’ states would be disastrous.

Equally, Trump has to ensure he appeals to those in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Iowa. All in all, this means that Trump has to carry out an unenviable balancing act, to try and keep voters from many very different constituencies on side.

Given these competing priorities, it would be no surprise to simply see Trump fall back on his usual tactic of insulting the competition, but not actually offering much substance. He has already announced the slightly baffling news that he has invited President Obama’s half-brother, Malik Obama, to attend the debate. Malik has previously said that he supports Trump, but this invite feels just like a publicity stunt, much the same as when Trump invited Bill Clinton’s accusers to the last presidential debate. The stunt didn’t have an impact then, and it isn’t going to work now. Trump has a misguided knack of attacking people who aren’t on the ballot, at the last debate it was Bill Clinton, throughout the past week it has been Paul Ryan, and at this one it looks as though it will be Barack Obama. This isn’t going to do anything to help Trump in this election, and seems totally unnecessary.

Overall, this debate gives Trump one final chance to appeal to undecided voters in the swing states. This is the most important thing for his campaign, and is absolutely what he should be focusing on. However, things like inviting Malik Obama to the debate suggests that Trump is going to fall back on his strategy of getting the odd good soundbite. This hasn’t worked so far as a way of persuading swing voters to back him, therefore there seems no reason that it will work now. For populist actions like this, Trump can use his mass rallies to energise his base. There seems little point in using the final presidential debate to do what he can do in fifteen minutes at one of his mass rallies. Instead he must use his debate to put forward some substantial policy, or his chances in this election are numbered. The indications suggest that once again Trump will avoid actual policy, and as a result the Hillary Clinton campaign must be licking their lips, a result like this couldn’t be more perfect for them, as it further consolidates Clinton’s position as the only candidate in this race who has put forward any real policy.

With Clinton’s poll numbers now pretty good, all she has to do is turn up and perform as competently as she did in the first two debates. For Trump, he must now put forward some proper policy, or he has got no chance.