Hello and welcome to the 538 Politics podcast, I'm Galen Group. Where does the Republican Party go from here?
In the just four years since former President Trump took office, the party lost the House, the Senate and White House. Its leaders also stoked wild conspiracy theories that spurred some supporters to commit violence at the Capitol. And now factions of the party are fighting amongst themselves as they try to decide the best ideological path forward. So why should the party do to sway voters in its direction? And does it include addressing the extremists and conspiracy theorists within its ranks? Today, we're going to talk about those questions with people who have spent their careers in Republican politics and conservative thought.
And here with me is Kristen Soltis Anderson, founder of the polling firm Echelon Insights and columnist at The Washington Examiner. Hi, Kristen.
Hi. Thanks for having me. Great to have you all. Here with us is Henry Olsen, senior fellow at the Ethics and Policy Center and columnist at The Washington Post.
Hello, Henry. Hello, Galen.
And also here with us is Ramesh Ponnuru, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and senior editor at National Review. Hi.
Hi. Thanks for having me. Great to have you. That was a lot of words. I hope I did all of your titles Justice. And I should say that I've invited you all on individually. But do you all know each other? Yes.
The world we travel in is is very small. So. All right, fantastic.
I got a lot of questions and I want to start off maybe a bit broadly and then we can narrow in. And let's start with you, Kristen. So what do you see as the biggest motivating factor for Republican voters today?
It's very simple. He fights. I think when Donald Trump won the Republican nomination back in 2016, it was because he, out of the 17 candidates running, 16 of them, thought that voters were looking for who was the most capital T, true capital C, conservative.
And they all ran that way. And Donald Trump was the one who realized that the left right axis was not what mattered. The strong, weak axis is what mattered. And so Donald Trump sort of capitalized on I will be the one that will fight for you. I will be the one who's willing to get my hands dirty, that if you are tired of losing and you are tired of losing politely, you don't have to worry about that with me.
And that's what he ran on. That's what he governed like for four years. And that's why in his post presidency, I'm skeptical that Trump ism as a policy agenda will have a great deal of legs. I think the party right now that there's there's a vacuum at the moment, but I don't view Trump as being a big driver of the policy direction of the party, nor do I think that Trump himself is the kingmaker at the moment. I mean, even if you look at some of the primaries where he endorsed, he endorsed the primary opponents of now representatives, Lauren Bobert and Madison Cawthorn, Lauren Bobert and Madison Catharina, both in Congress now not because Donald Trump endorsed them, but because they fight.
And I think this this desire for a fighting ethos at a moment when Republican voters are more likely than voters of any other political party or political persuasion to view politics today as a fight for survival, that what they want, first and foremost is someone who fights and the details will be filled in later.
I would amend that, which is to say that I think it's a fight about what that what Donald Trump noticed in twenty fifteen, twenty sixteen was that first there was a large middle class working class constituency that felt alienated over specific grievances, which were immigration and trade, which are flip sides of the same coin of protecting American workers against what they view as improper competition has since expanded that to include other groups of Americans who also feel threatened on their core value, religious Republicans who are worried about whether they can practice their faith freely and publicly or first and foremost among that group.
They were his last supporters in the 2016 primaries and are now at his base because he has co-opted their fear and made him their champion. So fighting is something that is done on behalf of specific issues. And where the Republican Party, the Trump coalition voter base is is what I call a conservative populist alliance. They want preservation of American ideals. They want preservation of free markets, but not pure free markets. They want protection in places where they can't fight for themselves, economics for some people, culture for other people.
And what a successful Republican would do is to show that they can fight more effectively and without the toxic elements of Trump and that. The sort of person who can win the twenty twenty four nomination while also potentially appealing to other voters who may not share quite the degree of angst that the core Trump voter does. But you only need to have one or two percent to get to the 50 50 country and guarantee an Electoral College victory. So building on the Trump coalition out means reflecting why they are afraid and fighting for those things in a more acceptable and rational way than Donald Trump.
I agree with most everything that my distinguished CO panelists have had to say, but I would put it even more simply to the original question of what holds the Republican Party together and what animates it. I would answer opposition to and hostility to the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party's leadership and the Democratic Party's coalition. And I think that that kind of negative polarization accounts for a good deal of the Democratic Party as well in reverse. Now, I wouldn't say that this is purely tribal.
What I would say is that originally this dividing line in our politics was basically about social issues, was about the claims of traditional religion, was about issues of of sexual morality and the right to life and so forth, but that to some extent that the partisanship has floated free from its original base and has taken on a life of its own.
So I wouldn't say that issues are irrelevant here. I think that it's actually quite instructive to look at which sort of traditional conservative and Republican points of orthodoxy he was able to ignore or contradict and which he wasn't. I think he was quite shrewd or cunning in understanding that, you know, your typical Republican voter didn't care about entitlement spending, didn't care about free trade. Maybe he was on the other side of those issues from the traditional Republican elite position, but that he would not get anywhere going left on abortion or guns or tax rates, that there are still those bedrock issues that conservatives and Republicans still have pretty deep convictions on, but that there was an enormous amount of flexibility on the other things.
I think there's something to be said there for the idea that Donald Trump revealed that the Republican voter base, his views on a variety of issues were far more heterodox than the views of those in think tanks in Washington and those advising congressional leaders and what have you. But I'm less persuaded that Donald Trump has changed what Republican voters, by and large, think about policy. And frankly, I think now that Republicans are back in the opposition, you are going to see a little bit of that old time religion around.
Things like fiscal conservatism come back into vogue now that Republicans are out of power, that there are certain things that I do think Donald Trump did not ultimately change about the party's political positions so much as reveal.
Right. And I think there's a separation here, which is like what are the kinds of policies or rhetoric that lawmakers in Washington pursue and then what ultimately is the base interested in? And so you've all talked about policies a little bit here. He's a fighter on trade or immigration. And I think there's also this question here, especially after January six, about is it also just who he's fighting for? You know, like is there a core xenophobic or racist element that Trump has stoked?
And I think there's some debate over how big that force is within the Republican Party. I mean, Chris, I'm curious in your polling that you do like do you have a sense of to what degree this is extremism, conspiracy theorists, kuhnen racism or xenophobia versus other maybe less toxic versions of populism?
Yeah, I don't think that the kuhnen extremist wing is the majority or is as much is as large a piece of the Republican coalition as I think it gets attention. I think that's that's pretty disproportionate, which is not to say that it doesn't exist, but I think there's a really instructive poll finding that came out this week from Pew. They asked people with Joe Biden taking the White House and Democrats taking control in Washington, who do you expect will be gaining and losing power in this new administration?
And overall, people believe that people of color, women, LGBT, those are the communities that are going to be gaining power and influence in America and in Washington in a Biden administration. But it's notable that when you look at subgroups and you look at Republicans, they are especially likely to believe that evangelical Christians, white Americans, men, you know, that these are groups that are going to be losing influence, that sort of viewing it as. Kind of zero sum game where some will gain more power and some will lose power, and I think that is what is driving for some people that believe, you know, I mentioned earlier in my Echelon insights polling, we ask, which do you believe is the point of politics?
Is it to pursue good public policy or is it to fight for the survival of the country? And Republicans are twice as likely to say it's about a fight for survival of the country. And I think that sense that their way of life is under threat, that the power they hold is is perhaps being lost or ceded, I think is driving a lot of folks embrace of a more extreme fighting style. And is why Donald Trump's I'm Going To Fight for You message has had such potency with Republican voters in these last few years.
But that also gets to the question of what are you fighting for? Is that let's use the example of Britain is that you had a lot of working class discontent going back to the 2005 general election that originally built up in toxic elements and built up and the racist British National Party. And it walked in to UKIP. And eventually what happened is these voters abandoned radicalism to support Boris Johnson's Tory party because a sane, rational person endorsed their worldview and said they could do something about it.
And I think one of the problems why people in the Republican Party say he fights is precisely because so many people in Washington have not seen the existential crisis that their voters do, whether it's on trade or immigration or religion or something else, and so consequently have not been willing and able to articulate that worldview in a way that demonstrates that they understand and that they plan to do something about it. If and when that happens, then I think a lot of this radicalism goes away because it's not radicalism.
It's a desire to see somebody actually win on their behalf. And I think the possibility of a majority conservative populist coalition is there for the having if the Republican leadership actually wants to embrace it.
I agree with what's been said. I would just add something which is I don't think that your typical Republican voter or your typical Trump supporter is, you know, was a racist or white supremacist or anything like that. I do think that compared to, say, five, six years ago, back then, I underestimated how much racism and bigotry there was in the Republican coalition. And even more, I underestimated how much tolerance for it there was. When you think about some of the great incidents of Trump's public career that really brought these issues to the fore, like the attack on Judge Curiel or the Charlottesville episode, his numbers took a drop.
At that point. Those were not, I think, the secret to his political success. What was so disturbing to me personally, at least, was that those sorts of things were not deal breakers for more conservatives and Republicans. And that did surprise me compared to what I would have thought in twenty fifteen.
So this is a blunt and maybe cynical question. Is this element of the Republican Party a impediment to winning elections or is it an actual draw for voters to turn out the base and to get people involved in primaries? And maybe that has something to do with what the Republican Party ultimately decides to do about it from a survival standpoint, for somebody like Mitch McConnell or other leaders who are thinking about how do we win elections, how do we build a durable coalition going forward?
Do they need to exercise these parts of the party and be vocal about it? Or can they coexist essentially?
Well, I just think the choice is not simply exercise or keep them in the coalition. And there's there's a tendency to think in those terms.
Right. So we think about the precedent of William F. Buckley Jr. casting out the John Birch Society from the conservative movement. And that that had to happen, I think, both for the, you know, the moral and intellectual health of conservatism, but also for the political health of conservatism. But it's not as though all the birthers just went away, weren't part of the Republican Party, didn't support conservative and Republican candidates. Not only were they still in the tent, but there were plenty of races that would have been lost without their support.
The question is sort of what elements of people's mixed views do you cater to? What do you highlight and who do you choose as your leaders? And there I think, you know, in the case of, say, Marjorie Taylor Green, who's who everybody's talking about today, you know, you don't have to make everybody who ever supported her in that district, you know, sign a letter saying we. Apologize will never do it again, but I do think you have to move to marginalize her.
Well, there's there's even a more recent example, which is Steve King. He was ostracized by Republican leadership. They said this guy is too far. The things he is said are well outside the bounds of what we're willing to accept, stripped him of his committee assignments and he was able to be defeated in a primary. It wasn't something where he was kicked out of Congress by leadership or by Congress. His own voters said, this guy can't deliver for us anymore because he's too far gone.
It's hurting his ability to give our district what we need. And I think that's very instructive. And frankly, it surprises me a little bit that while Republican leadership had the right answer on Steve King, there seems to be a struggle to get to the right answer on Marjorie Taylor Greene when when it worked, Republicans held that seat. And with a member, Randy Veenstra, who is not Steve King, it seems as though the answer is right there.
If only they would take it.
Yeah. I'm curious who you think in today's Republican Party both has the power and the willingness to sway voters against unacceptable figures or ideas within the party. Right. You've all mentioned examples of when the Republican Party has sidelined extremism. Perhaps one of the most famous example is George H.W. Bush calling on Louisiana voters not to vote for David Duke, of course, former grand wizard of the KKK for governor in 1991. Who is that today?
Not just has the power, but is also willing to because a lot of times these conversations that we're having right now about extremism, democratic norms, conspiracy theories, having an elite sphere's think tanks, the media, the government podcasts, but like there has to be people willing to get beyond those elites fears and talk to rank and file voters, people who show up in primary elections and convince them that they're right.
How does that happen and who doesn't? I'm pessimistic on this point.
I believe the control room is empty, that I think it's hard to think of even Donald Trump right now, even if he were to come out and completely change his rhetoric and his position on a whole bunch of things, I don't even know that that would necessarily matter. Something that I think was very instructive. Terrifying is I have I have known Congresswoman Elise Stefanik for a long time. I follow her on Instagram. I've learned a lot about her upstate New York district from her travels through throughout.
And about two or three days before the inauguration, she posted a picture with Mike Pence. Mike Pence came to visit her district on his sort of farewell tour. And I try to follow the rule. Never read the comments, but I couldn't help myself. It's a picture of her with Mike Pence and the comments, which are as somebody who works in the quantitative field, again, I shouldn't be looking at this as any kind of representative sample. But the consistency and the volume was terrifying.
The number of people who were like, how could you pose with him? He's a traitor. How could you possibly stand with this man who let us down? You're being a sellout to these sorts of things.
Mike Pence is the most conservative. He was so loyal to Donald Trump put in a position where he had to do what the Constitution said he had to do. And yet that has gotten him excommunicated by an unbelievable portion of the Republican base.
And so that to me is was just a sign that I can't think of who the messenger is that can be unifying or could persuade people to think differently. I feel like like some of these currents are just bigger than any one possible messenger.
I don't think there is one messenger. I think there'll be a lot of different messengers. You know, just in the last thirty six hours, Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney have both criticized Green's conspiracy theories and loony beliefs. I expect you'll see more people doing that. But one of the things, as long as I've been doing political analysis, people always ask me the who you know, who will do this? And my argument is that in American politics, the who is incredibly fluid.
The lot is incredibly stable. There are a lot of ambitious politicians who know where the center of Republican Party opinion is, which is a sane, sanitized version of the conservative populist alliance that indulges neither in conspiracy theories nor the head in the sand views of the Republican establishment.
But I have to ask you, is that what you want it to be or is that what you truly think it is?
Well, first of all, I think the data are pretty clear that if you want to talk about what unites the Republican Party, I'm going to be releasing a poll that Christians seeing the advanced data on that.
I can't talk about it until Friday, but on Friday, I think it will be pretty clear what the unifies the Republican voter base and what divides the Republican voter base. But it's not xenophobia. It's not racism. It is a belief that things that people value about America are under threat and they want to fight back to achieve those things, not for the sake of fighting, but to achieve those things. And I. I think that eventually what will happen and not too long from now, you'll see people beginning to try and capture that, and when that does, you'll see people beginning to follow those people that the Republican voter base wants, somebody who can say you can have a respected place in the United States and the United States is not going to be a place which cast you out into the darkness of of alienation.
And when the Republican leadership and a Republican candidate can convey that sincerely and convincingly, you'll see, just as with the British, when Boris Johnson collapsed, all the radicals you'll see those people flock to a conservative populist banner that can be a majority and not a minority, but isn't part of turning out Republican voters in primaries and getting the enthusiasm of the base behind you, convincing people that there is this threat that white Christian Americans are not being valued and that they need to fight back like there are people within the party who are stoking all of this fear amongst the base.
And those are the people who are going to be able to capture the party going forward.
The Republican presidential nominee has not represented the base of the party for each of the last six nominees, with the exception of George W. Bush. And he even he was not the first choice of the Republican base. They actually have split their votes between Alan Keyes, Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer in the Iowa caucus in 2000. Had they united behind one candidate, they might have kept George W. Bush from winning. But the fact is that the majority of Republican primary voters are not the base.
Donald Trump beat the base candidate, Ted Cruz, because he reassembled that majority that has won every presidential nomination. Going back to Ronald Reagan, which is the moderate conservative and the moderate voter who lives in the Midwest, the Pacific Coast and the Northeast. Those are the people who nominate Republican nominees and they are not the base. And what you need to do is find a way to not to be the candidate of the angry base, but to be the candidate of the responsible middle, which includes fighting for these different values, but does not mean going so far over that you become unelectable or nominate them.
I think there was a shift in Trump's base of support over time that has tended to distort our analysis of how he won in 2016. It came to be that the Republicans who were least comfortable with him were the moderate Republicans and the conservative Republicans were the ones who were most enthusiastic about him. But that was not the way it started out. He was consistently lagging in the primaries among Republican primary voters who described themselves as very conservative and was doing better among those who describe themselves as somewhat conservative or as moderate.
As Henry points out, in almost every Republican presidential primary from 1988 onward, the winner has been somebody who's assembled a coalition from this, from the center and actually the left of the party and not from the right, which is typically for various reasons, splintered. And that includes Donald Trump. And one of the interesting things that I that I think is happening right now is that a lot of the people who want to copy Trump's success in twenty, twenty four inside the party don't seem to get that themselves.
And they seem to be trying to be to assemble Trump coalitions from the right end of the party. I'm not sure that that's necessarily going to work. To make another point about the sort of how apocalyptic do you need to be, how hostile, how much, how combative and so forth? Look, I think there are going to be Republicans who run in twenty twenty four who are going to run a sort of ideological trump on things like trade and immigration, but trying to tone it down and be a little bit more conciliatory, a little bit more rational sounding.
And then they're going to be people who try to run as sort of pre Trump Republicans with a more, let's say, Paul Ryan ish message, but be louder and angrier and more combative. And I think we're going to see a real time test of sort of which of these elements is more important to Republican primary voters. But I wouldn't count out the possibility that Trump won the nomination because he saw a vacuum of addressing some issues that other Republicans weren't addressing.
He was a celebrity. He was seen as a successful businessman and executive, and he needed that core group of birthers at the beginning. But it wasn't really kind of, again, the secret of his success.
You just said something that reminded me of a point I often try to make, which is the distinction between a party's base and a party's activist class. You see this in the Democratic primary. You saw this very clearly where the progressive activist class was very favorable towards, say, and Elizabeth Warren or what have you, but. The base of a party is the reliable voters who turn out pretty frequently, it does not necessarily mean the ideological extremes. It means the reliable bulk of the voters.
And so on the Democratic side, actually, the Democratic base was with Joe Biden. Your Democratic base was much more likely to be a 60 year old African-American woman than a 25 year old progressive Bernie Sanders supporter.
But person number one was not active on Twitter. Well, Henries actually written a lot. And I'm seen you up for this, Henry, about how actually the Republican base is includes the somewhat conservative group that they're actually not the same as the people who are giving money to conservative causes and listening to talk radio every day. And that there is a difference in both parties between the activist class who are driven by primarily ideological concerns and the base who I think are somewhat more disconnected from that, a little more fluid.
And that's why I think Trump's appeal is less about ideology and more about this fighting posture that he brings to everything.
That's really a great point, that when you take a look at the 20 20 Democratic race, it was the first time they really broke down, like the Republicans, that the typical Republican primary race is people compete for various lanes. And then when it gets down to one versus one, the hard movement candidate that excites the activist class loses to the other person because the process of making yourself the favorite of the activist class meant that the largest voter bloc, which is the somewhat conservatives and the Republicans or the moderates in the Democratic Party, find them distasteful and they swing behind the alternative in 2016.
For the Republicans, that was Trump, because between religious and libertarian conservative Ted Cruz and businessman Donald Trump, Donald Trump, for all of his eccentricities, was closer to that center. And in twenty twenty in the Democratic side, it was Joe Biden who represented that pragmatic moderate liberalism as opposed to what the activist class, once that coalitions possibility still exists in the Republican Party. And I expect that that's going to be where the nominee comes from. The person who builds out from the center, the somewhat conservative group, which is less angry, less radical while still being and less ideological while still wanting someone who fights than it is building from the right into the center.
That tends to be very difficult to do because of the issue, predilections and ideological background of the hard right.
What I'm curious about is when Ramesh talks about who will be the leaders of the party moving forward and he talks about how there may be some who adopt Trump's policy proclivities but but perhaps are more muted in style versus those who will differ from him greatly on policy, but try to adopt his style. I don't think I've ever seen someone actually.
Effectively, truly. Pretend to be tempest without it being organic, like it just doesn't work as a as a costume people can put on, I've never seen someone sort of fake it effectively. And what I also wonder is, you know, I say, oh, Trump's big appeal is this. He fights posture, but there's a lot going on under there. There was this blockbuster Axios piece this week that talked about the meeting in the Oval Office between Sydney Powell and the gentleman from Overstock.com.
And in the meeting, it talks about how Trump was critical of Sydney Powell for misspelling the word district in three of her lawsuits and kind of thought some of her ideas were a little out there and said so, but said like she's willing to fight, she's willing to get her hands dirty.
And that's exactly Trump's appeal to his own supporters in focus groups. They'll tell me sometimes he's a little out there. Sometimes he says things I wouldn't like him to say, but at least he fights. And so I'm curious what pieces of Trump's ethos will be replicable and appealing to Republican voters.
So we've talked here a bit about extremism. And it seems like you've coalesced around the idea that more moderate, more temperate candidates will make it through the primary process going forward in the cases of Marjorie Taylor Greene or Bobert or even Trump, of course, like he may have been seen as moderate, but like the way that he behaved was so outside of the democratic norms that we consider to be standard fare in American government for centuries. And so is there actually something that the Republican Party can do?
Maybe it's reform in primaries, or maybe it's the way that it treats certain members that can preclude these kinds of things from replicating or going even further than they currently are.
So that's that's a great question. But before we get to it, let me just add one other thing, which is that when we talk about moderates winning Republican contests, we have to have the right mental picture of what a moderate is. So you can be a moderate, successful candidate in a Republican presidential primary, by which I mean you're not somebody who gets up out of bed every morning trying to figure out how you shrink the government or how you ban abortion trumps a moderate in both of those respects.
He's somebody who will represent those people to some extent. But that's fundamentally not his passion. It's not what 90 percent of his politics are about. That doesn't mean that you have to support, say, a bipartisan deal on comprehensive immigration reform in order to be a moderate Republican in that sense.
And I think a lot of not just journalists, but a lot of Republicans themselves sort of misunderstood who moderate Republicans were going into 2016. And it led them astray on the question of sort of what can the party do? Well, look, I mean, I think exercising leadership instead of just sort of hoping that other people will exercise it for you and then you can glom onto them. That's a big part of it. I do think that there are some structural reforms that are worth looking into.
I am not somebody who believes that every election for every office at every stage should be instant runoff or ranked choice. But I think that we could stand to lose a little bit more of that so that you don't have fringe candidates squeaking by on a plurality when when most of the party would choose somebody more sensible. And I think that a number of Republican self-inflicted wounds would have been avoided that way. For example, you wouldn't have gotten Todd Akin in the 2012 Missouri Senate primary for the Republicans if you'd had something like that.
I think reforming primary rules would be great. You know, Donald Trump would not have been nominated if Republicans had Democratic Party delegate allocation rules. And that's because Republicans like winner take all and winner take most. And so Donald Trump walked into South Carolina, got all 50 delegates on less than thirty three percent of the vote. Democrats would have given him thirty three percent of the delegates, roughly because he would have had that as a proportional share. And then what you would have had is a contested convention, because even with the exception of some of the Northeastern primaries where there are so few movement conservatives that Trump could get majorities of the vote, he usually won with pluralities even towards the end.
And I think that would be something that Republicans should think about. Do they want to guard against another Trump like candidate who's unacceptable to a majority, but running through the gauntlet, through the delegate selection process? And you can do it either through rank choice voting system, or you can do it through simply adopting a rigid, proportional, one size fits all delegate allocation mechanism for every jurisdiction in the country the way the Democrats do. Either one would ensure that the nominee represents a majority, if not a supermajority of actual voters in the party.
I'm somewhat less sanguine about the idea that there are process changes that can be. To address what is fundamentally a demand-side problem, so take, for instance, what's happening in Virginia over the last few years, not last number of gubernatorial cycles, Republicans have not had very good luck winning statewide in Virginia. And this has led in the state party for to have a lot of debates about, well, should we have a primary where Republican voters across the state vote or do we have a convention where activists come together and will choose?
And the thinking for a long time was that a primary would be better for getting a, quote unquote, more electable nominee, someone who has a broader base of support versus who can get through in a convention. And this came after the convention had had chosen a candidate for lieutenant governor who had, I believe, said some things about like yoga being a pathway to the devil. I mean, just some odd stuff. But this time around, actually, there is a candidate named Amanda Chase, who is a state senator who is very much so of the Marjorie Taylor Greene School of Thinking and Approach.
And she's actually said that in her view, a convention is too much of the establishment, that she believes in a primary with very divided field, that that's how she could get through, that the establishment would be able to crack down on her too much in a in a convention. So I think, you know, there are things that the party can do, whether it's good candidate recruitment, really putting up a good fight in these primaries where it matters that I think is important.
But I also think understanding that there's fundamentally a demand side problem here, that Marjorie Taylor Greene didn't get elected out of nowhere. She did have an opponent, and that's who the people in her district wanted. That's the tougher problem for the party to grapple with.
Yeah, no, I wouldn't want to overestimate what you can achieve through process reforms, but I do think that some could make a marginal difference for the good.
You know, with respect to Green, you know, I followed that primary very closely because I was on to the wack a doodle some very early. And what was very telling was that her primary opponent never attacked her on that ground. And her ads, which is what, as Christine knows, you know, what most casual voters base their opinion on is what they see on television. We're incredibly aggressive, but very conventional. You know, good on guns, control the border, stop socialism in the green.
No deal. You know, they were over the top in the sense that she's shooting an AR 15 of cans that have those names on it.
But it's not the stuff she was putting on Facebook. That's my point. And my point is that her Republican opponents never brought that stuff up. So if the voters, you know, those of us in the Beltway who read Politico said, oh, my God, she's a nutcase. But the voters never heard that. So the voters saw moderate conservative John Callon vs. Conservative whose hard core on everything and fights. And they chose that. What they've never faced those voters is do you want somebody who's conservative and hard core and not a nutjob or do you want a conservative whose hard core and a nut job?
And that's the choice that you would probably get in twenty, twenty two. And I don't think they'll choose the nut job if somebody is willing to actually make that argument.
I love talking to you, Henry. You give me hope. One thing that strikes me and Ed Henry and I and Christian too, we've all talked about this from time to time, how Republicans sort of took these ideas that made sense and worked under particular circumstances and then pushed and pushed and pushed them past a point of diminishing returns. So, for example, it was perfectly right for Reagan to say, we got to get that top tax rate down from 70 percent where it was in 1981.
But keeping on bringing that top tax rate down shouldn't have become an obsession of the Republican Party forever for all the decades that followed. And I think there's something similar among Republican voters in the sense that for a long time it did make sense. I mean, it does it does make sense as a rule of thumb to say something like, well, if all the liberals hate this person, that's the one that I want to to go with. But you can take it too far.
It does make sense to a certain extent to say we need somebody who's skeptical of the academic or intellectual fashion of the day and the conventional wisdom. I recently looked back at William F. Buckley Jr. column from the end of the Reagan years where he said, Reagan, we got a leader who was willing to say, shucks, professor, I think you're wrong. But there has to be some limit on that intellectual skepticism where you're not saying, you know what, everybody who says that Martians aren't controlling us with with laser beams, you know, that's the establishment, right?
It was it was a skepticism that went all the way into insanity and actually made people more credulous. And I think that that there has to be some sort of corrective among conservatives themselves where, yeah, we don't believe everything the media wants us to believe.
That doesn't mean that we're going to fall for some baloney about voting machines.
So it sounds like when it comes to the question of extremism, there are a lot of open questions about what the party can do in terms of leadership, in terms of structural reform, things like that. I think in large part, this is playing out before our eyes right now, so. A lot of it is wait and see what happens, and maybe we can all gather again in a year and talk about it, but I do. You've started talking about this.
So I want to dig a little bit more into it. And of course, Henry, this is what you write about a lot, which is what is the policy platform of the Republican Party going forward to bring up an example, of course, you've all heard freshman Congressman Madison Cawthorn reportedly wrote an email to his colleagues saying that he built his staff around communications rather than legislation. And this gets out, of course, Kristen, your point of a fighter versus somebody who's really passionate about governance and policy.
So how much of an interest is there in the Republican Party today for creating a policy platform that creates something that does something new and different for the American people versus a more contrarian grievance politics based coalition? And I know that you all want the answer to be, of course, the Republican Party is going to build this policy platform that addresses the problems of the majority of Americans, but maybe be like a little bit dispassionate here. Do you think that is actually there, that there is both both the voter base and the lawmakers initiative to get there?
I think in order for that to happen, it will have to take leadership and leadership really wanting it, because naturally, when you're in the opposition, the path of least resistance is to be the people that just say no to the bad things. And so the idea of assembling an agenda that is positive and forward looking is challenging because when you are in the opposition, you are effectively giving your opponents something to shoot at. It is a target that you have put on your back.
That's why there is I think there was considerable debate. Let's go back to 2010. You know, John Boehner wound up Republicans take control of the House that year. There are some that say this is because John Boehner ran on this message of where are the jobs? We have this Pledge to America. It's like a Contract with America 2.0. That's why we won. But others would say you won because Obama did a bunch of things that you said.
We don't like Obamacare. We don't like the stimulus. These are bad things. Vote for us and we'll stop bad things from happening. And I think that's the fundamental debate strategically is what is smarter to do when you are in the opposition. I would love to see them embrace a positive agenda, just as you said. But I think the reality of politics is that being in the opposition, that path of least resistance, is to just say we're just going to say no to bad stuff and let that be a rallying cry.
I also think there's a difference between a presidential majority and a congressional leadership. We don't have a parliamentary system where the leader of the opposition in parliament becomes the next prime minister. So that opposition always has to be tempered with a positive agenda. I think midterm elections tend to be you to use a tennis analogy, breaking serve, which means you dig in and you try and take what the opponent is throwing at you and you try and throw them off their game and then winning.
It means you have to serve. You have to actually try and get points. And that's where the presidential nomination comes in. So if I were the Republicans, I would maybe have one or two alternatives on key issues that they would present knowing they will lose, but that unite the party to Biden and otherwise play opposition. And if I were a presidential candidate, I would be using that time to build out a positive agenda that builds off of the moral instinct that Ronald Reagan became the conservative heartthrob, not because he had an 18 point policy agenda, but because he channeled their sense of where America was and he had the more legitimacy.
And then he put together a policy agenda and people would follow that policy agenda because it seemed to be rationally related to the moral instinct. And so I think that if there is a failure to do that, then there will be a failure to win, that you cannot win a presidential campaign simply by running negative unless the candidate is like with Donald Trump. So. Unpopular with the vast majority that you can effectively run on a on a negative campaign, but even Biden had some sort of a positive alternative that was mainly communicated to the Democratic voter blocs.
So if they do choose a pure grievance based anger, no rational policy agenda, that is a recipe for a massive repudiation of the polls.
But what I think you also said that was so crucial was you talked about how it wasn't like Reagan had an 18 point policy plan. I think sometimes when we think of, oh, we want people to put forward a policy agenda, that's kind of where our mind goes. And there's I forget where I saw this, but it was an interview done with Paul Begala about the Kerry 2004 campaign.
And like the moment that he knew they were going to lose and he said it was because they asked, like, hey, he said, what's our campaign's message? And someone said, it's hose. And he said, Jay Hose, like, what is Jay Hose? And they're like jobs, housing, opportunity, security, jobs.
And he was like, nope, we're going to lose. That's it. I mean, not that people don't want jobs, housing, opportunity and security, but that's not a cohesive message. And so that to me is even the bigger question, right, is what's the through line between here are the 12 things on trade and immigration, et cetera, that a Republican Party could be for. And what's the overall umbrella narrative beyond he fights?
So I think one lesson that we should have drawn, but didn't, as conservatives and Republicans from the failure of Obamacare replacement in 2017 was the the limits of a pure oppositionism.
There were pros and cons in the short run during the Obama years to not having a unified and and built out conservative alternative to Obamacare.
But you can very easily make the case that on net not doing that made sense. You want a bunch of elections that way. The trouble is, once you actually get power, you've got no idea what to do with it. You don't have the buy in from throughout your party. You haven't tested any of the issues to see where the the problems might be. And so, I mean, part of the question for conservative activists and conservative politicians is what do you actually want to accomplish something?
Because if you do want to actually change government policy, then I think you do have to have a policy orientation. And I and I do think that that is a party wide problem. It's not a Trump problem. It's not a party. Trump is a problem. It's every faction of the party. If you go into the twenty eighteen elections, the Republicans have a majority of the House, the Senate, they've got the White House. They don't bother.
No faction of the party bother saying, well, this is what we'll do if you if you extend our run for another two years. And it wasn't just that nobody was offering that nobody was even asking them to.
It wasn't as though there were a bunch of social conservative groups or the Club for Growth or the Wall Street Journal editorial page or anybody of note in the party saying, hey, come on, give us a 10 point plan. That was just it was just not there. And the party from the top to the bottom was more eager to talk about what's happening at halftime in football games than they were about, you know, well, what are you going to do to improve my life if you take power?
And fundamentally, when I started with a bunch of other people, including including Christine and Henry seven, eight years ago, trying to get Republicans to embrace some sort of an updated conservative agenda, I thought the problem was primarily they had this old conservative agenda that they needed to change. And it turns out that the bigger problem was that they were just not interested in an agenda at all. And that, I think, is a continuing problem.
Does this come back to, Chris, when you started off by talking about this poll where Republican voters say that they're more interested in somebody who fights for them than somebody who has the perfect policy platform? So doesn't just not matter? Is politics just going to be identity and messaging and fighting and anti polarization, anti partisanship and not policy like does the data just tell us, as cynical as it may be, that the Republican Party may not have a clear agenda, but it also may not matter at all?
Well, I still believe that policy matters. And I believe if Republicans are going to put together put back together any kind of coalition moving forward, it has to include policies that will make people's lives better. They don't necessarily have to be the same policies Republicans would have run on 10 years ago or even five years ago. But I do believe there has to be some policy component to it. I just think that at the moment, the desires of the Republican base are less easily coalesced around a simple policy agenda and are more about sort of an emotional, emotional position and a worldview about the need for people to be more willing to fight harder.
And this is. I wrote my column at The Washington Examiner this week all about this, where I note that this is something that parties I can ask my Democratic friends and my Republican friends both the same question, how do you think your party is doing? And the response I will typically get back is we're the ones who are weak and conciliatory. And the other side, they're smart and evil and they know how to fight the fight on unfair terrain.
And we've just got to get better about doing that. People of both parties think that about the other side consistently, the challenges that for Republicans that became there, like the animating thing that they were looking for, I think post Mitt Romney 2012 and I think even post Donald Trump losing and now Republicans losing everything in Washington. Again, I don't think that that's been shaken. I think the idea of we need to fight harder and even more aggressively is going to be even more entrenched in the party, at least in the the base of the party now for at least the short to medium term.
Can I just say, look, the Republicans can run an extraordinarily suboptimal campaign in twenty, twenty four and still win if the economy's bad enough, if the Democratic candidate is bad enough. So, you know, these are the sorts of things we're talking about, I think would make a difference at the margin. But, you know, I would say something like 80 to 88 percent of the public, maybe even more than that. It's baked in how people are going to vote.
Yeah. So I've heard you talk about this term, conservative populism, plenty. And Ramesh, we actually talked in twenty seventeen right after Trump became president about what the future of the Republican Party looks like. And this kind of updating the conservative platform idea. Right now, Republicans are facing a situation where Biden's initial agenda policy platform is quite popular. Right. He's getting two thirds of the American public on board with this covid-19 proposal. A similar number, support investing in renewable energy infrastructure.
Then it's somewhere around 60 percent support a pathway to citizenship for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Our criminal justice reform, like they're facing this guy who now has power and control of the House and Senate and has a popular platform. What policies do Republicans need to present as an alternative to that that will be popular with the broad American public on health care, income disparities, criminal justice, climate change, things like that?
I'm going to push back on you on this notion that he's this wildly popular guy. His job approval right now is hovering over 50 percent.
He may not be popular, but at least has provisions so far seem to be. Well, OK. So, I mean, I've never seen a poll in which clean energy isn't popular, but I do know that they're going to be a lot of states where canceling the Keystone pipeline causes a lot of job losses and a lot of backlash against him. And I think you're right. So let's take an issue like energy. I do a ton of polling on this.
I think Republicans would be very smart to put forward what would a Republican affordable, clean energy position look like and how do you contrast that with something like the Green New Deal? And I think you'd find that Republicans have a lot of opportunities to put forward something that is more popular than, say, something like the Green New Deal. I think those opportunities exist. And I wouldn't overstate the popularity of Joe Biden's current full agenda. I think there are certain things like covid, where the polls certainly show people think he is better positioned than Donald Trump and frankly, his job approval and covid is higher than his job approval overall.
But I would be careful about overstating just how popular Joe Biden's full agenda is right now. Right.
And I'll add to that, just to be totally clear, that there are areas on things like immigration that his positions are not popular. And what he's done so far with executive actions have not been popular. So it's not the full agenda, but at least what he's prioritizing in the first part of his presidency seems to have a lot of I mean, these people weren't born yesterday. You pursue the most popular stuff at the at the start, presumably. But how do Republicans respond?
We have a dated perception of what presidential popularity can achieve, because even compared to 2009, in 2009, Obama was very popular and there were a bunch of Republicans in districts who that had that had gone for Obama.
There are a lot fewer such districts now. And essentially, I mean, I don't think there is a single Republican in either chamber of Congress who is more afraid of Joe Biden than he is of Donald Trump and regardless of what state or district that that person is. So there's just there's a limit to what that kind of popularity can achieve. And I suspect Biden and the Biden White House understand that.
What I would say for Republicans and conservatives I know this is going to sound incredibly naive is I would actually go back and think, what are the top five problems in our country and are there conservative solutions to this? And that's what I would go with. I would not try to. Answer, you know, Biden has a plan on energy, therefore there's a conservative alternative on energy. Biden has a plan on health care. We have, I would think, what is our actual what we think the agenda should be.
And that's where I would go. I don't think actually you need to have a point four point response and everything.
And one of the things like so right now, in terms of the covid response, which could look, the politics of that could look very different a year from now, running into twenty, twenty two than they do right now. But at the moment, one thing I would say is you've got a big fat opportunity on the closure of the public schools and the inability of the Democratic coalition to respond to the needs of children and parents.
I want to get you in here because I know you write a lot about conservative populism and what that would look like. So have you taken a look? What are those five policy priorities? Or maybe there are fewer for the country that Republicans can form a popular agenda around?
Well, the first thing you have to do is remember that policy flows from moral instincts and the moral instincts are going to be and my moral sense of what America is and can be is more permanent and the policies can change. Right now we're talking about covid by twenty, twenty three. We may not be talking about covid at all. I think what conservative populism offers that traditional conservatism did not is a more inclusive view of what citizenship means, is that to be an American doesn't mean to live in the land of the free.
It also means to live in a land where people will help you reach your strongest potential. And that's what is underneath a lot of these new Republicans. The people that didn't vote for Romney, didn't vote for McCain, didn't vote for Bush, but did vote for Trump and through Trump voted for Republicans up and down the ticket is that he offered that in a way that none of them had before. And a conservative populism would be to show how limited targeted interventions in things like immigration.
You know, immigration is a place where we need government to enforce borders and enforce legal requirements to work. There's lots of policies that flow from that. But you have to accept the core sense of the moral imperative to act to help average Americans against things they can't control on their own. The same is true with trade is that we don't want to have Fortress America with walls of protection, but we don't want to pretend that having a quest for economic efficiency, shipping jobs to Myanmar and Vietnam and Indonesia, regardless of their political regimes, is good for America in the long run.
And you need a targeted, limited intervention to deal with that. I would say a conservative populism is able to voice that and extend it outside of the economic sphere. And once you have voice that, I think what you'll find is you'll divide the center from the left because the left owns that language right now because they're the only ones talking in that language. And when you offer that, suddenly you'll find a lot of different types of centrist people saying, hey, this new Republican Party sounds a lot like what I always was looking for in the Democrats, and they've kind of gone off the rails.
And so the policies should be dealt with with respect to the problems of the moment. But the moral sentiment, the moral instincts should involve help not ignoring public problems and embrace a limited but effective government role to deal with.
If I may be the rain cloud, very briefly, I don't think you're naive, Ramesh, but I do think that if you were to ask Republican leaders to put together a list of what they think the top five problems are in the country, I'm unsure how much that would align with what the Republican base thinks and how much that aligns with what swing voters think. I mean, I'd be fascinated to know if you ask people, what do you think is a bigger problem in this country, improving people's economic well-being or cancel culture?
Which one do you think would win? And and that to me, I think is is going to be the challenge. It's not just what are the positions on the issues, but what do we prioritize, you know?
And you can see that you can see that tension in Trump himself. Think of Trump 2016, who's running on all these issues that normal people care about, but the elites haven't really addressed, like the opioid crisis, the loss of manufacturing jobs, immigration to some extent, versus 20, 20. Mike Flynn is being persecuted. Right? Like what? You know, or some or some elaborate thing about the deep state that you have to be like a hard core viewer of Fox News to even understand what he's saying at the debate.
So, yeah, absolutely. Republicans and conservatives can get sort of too far down their rabbit hole as as, of course, Democrats can as well.
I want to circle back, Chris, based on your polling, is the economic well-being of Americans or cancer culture more important to Republican voters?
I think the economic well-being is I mean, I don't think I've actually asked any question. What do you think is the top issue facing the country and included cancel culture specifically as an option? But I, I know that it is the sort of thing that is an issue that has much more sort of emotional valence than things like. Economic policy, fiscal policy, and that, I think, especially in a primary setting, makes it particularly potent, I don't think it's a surprise that I believe it was earlier this week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, someone who presumably has his eyes on twenty twenty four, announced that any tech platform that deals platform platforms a candidate for office, the state of Florida will be finding them a hundred thousand dollars.
Now, I don't think there's any I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure that this is not going to hold up in any court of law anywhere. But it's intended as a signal. Look, I'm going to be tough on tech. I'm fighting UNcancel culture. These are the things that Republican leaders are focused their attention on. And it's again, it's a demand-side issue. It's because they know there is demand from their voters who feel under siege or or have been told they're under siege and believe we need someone who's going to fight to keep people like me from not being able to have our voice heard.
And that's consistent with the conservative populist message, because what is that? That is a limited and targeted government intervention to help people be protected against things they can't handle on their own. You apply that principle to social media regulation. You apply it to competition from foreigners living, whether they're living at home, immigration or abroad through trade. You apply it to questions of religious liberty. Demand for the Republican voter and the Trump voter right now is for action, not inaction.
But the Republican intellectual establishment is fundamentally geared towards telling people that they ought to favor inaction over action. And that's one of the reasons why they're not interested in policy, is that they've been conditioned to believe that action is not Republican, is not conservative, but the voters in the Republican, the Trump coalition want action. And I think if you ask people what's your top priority, deregulating business or de platforming, keeping tech from silencing your viewpoints, you'd see much more people care about tech, silencing their viewpoints than deregulating business or even lowering tax rates.
Because 30 years ago, those were things that directly affected people and it seemed rational to deal with their problems. Today, they want a government that will protect them against malevolent actors, whether they are state actors like China or large institutions like Silicon Valley or Hollywood. They would rather see government protect them against that than engage in an action. And once we get over that mental barrier, I think you'll find more language that can appeal to swing voters to to wrap up here.
Based on what you've all said about traditional conservatism and some of the departures that the party has made.
Do you think this fiscal conservatism focus on the debt and deficit is now dead within the Republican Party? No.
In fact, I think it's going to come back into fashion a little bit now that Republicans are in the opposition in Congress.
It also depends on what you mean by fiscal conservatism, the fiscal conservatism, meaning restraining government growth, keeping tax rates on average, working people down. Yes, that's still very valid for fiscal conservatives, means cutting popular entitlements and engaging in cutting government for its own sake to cut the budget deficit. I think there'll be people in Washington who want that, but I don't think that's very high on the voters minds. So it really depends on what you mean by fiscal conservatism and fiscal conservatism that gets in the way of limited and targeted help for people who believe they need it is something that will be thrown by the wayside, as I think the Trump presidency demonstrated.
I think smaller government is for conservatives what equality is for people on the left. Most people would like a smaller government. Most people would like more equality. There is a very tiny group of people on each side who passionately care about either of those issues. There is a potential majority that is willing to say, I like this thing that would also fight inequality, or I like this thing that would also shrink the government. But you've got to it's got to be tied to something a little bit more tangible and less abstract for a large enough group of voters for it to matter to care.
Well, let's leave it there. Thank you, Kristen, Ramesh and Henry. Thanks for having us. Welcome. My name is Galen Droog. Tony Chow is in the control room. Claire Bennet, Gary Curtis is on audio editing. You can get in touch by emailing us at Podcast's at five thirty eight dotcom. You can also, of course, tweet us with any questions or comments. If you're a fan of the show, give us a reading or review in the Apple podcast store or tell someone about us.
Thanks for listening and we'll see.