One of the by-products of the recent climate in US politics is to merge the words “conservative” and “loony”. And by loony, I mean unwilling or unable to engage in a reasonably intelligent discussion of policy. There is good reason for this. Again and again, Republicans who represent conservatives act that way. One gets the sense that there is something wrong with being conservative.
As Ezra Klein points out, this is a superficial assessment of what has been going on in Republican politics. There are specific reasons why the loony right has come to dominate there. And in fact, the Republican Party has paid a high price for embracing the loony right. If it had not done so, and instead fielded more moderate candidates, it would be in a far stronger position. Instead, Democrats look forward to the 2018 midterm elections with great hope.
Underlying all of this, in my view, is that Americans have by and large voted according to what they have felt is reasonable under the circumstances at a given moment. Going back in time, Americans came to the view that the War in Vietnam had become unreasonable, and that led to Nixon’s victory in 1968. But Nixon’s behavior turned unreasonable and Ford paid the price in 1976. In came Carter. But Carter appeared unreasonable and in 1980, in came the smiling Ronald Reagan. Jumping forward, Clinton seemed reasonable in 1992 and in 1996. So did Obama in 2008 and 2012. George W Bush? Without the crisis of 9/11 and then the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think he would have been a “one termer” like his dad. The crisis over terrorism enabled Bush to get the benefit of the doubt.
And what about Trump? Could one use the word “reasonable” and “Trump” in the same sentence with a straight face? No. For that reason, he is political poison to his own party. The point here is that it is less a matter of policy substance and more the perception of whether the person and embrace of ideas are reasonable in context that matters to voters. The Doug Jones victory over Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race may support that. Even in heavily Republican Alabama, A Democrat who ran a smart race could beat a man who appeared unreasonable — just barely Here is the thing — once views set on whether a given actors is reasonable or not, those views are difficult to change. M y prediction — hanging out on the loony fringe will doom the Republican Party to the sidelines, and once there, they are likely to stay there until they put on a new face.
In that vein, I notice that Paul Ryan — a politician who tried to appear reasonable and embrace radical views on the role of the national government — is saying that he will retire. This may be evidence that Ryan’s political stance is not tenable. A new conservative paradigm will have to emerge.
Let’s see how that comes about!
Hmmm … you might be wondering how the epitome of unreasonableness, Trump, got elected in the first place. First, he actually lost the election. We should not forget that. Trump did not appeal to a majority of voters. Instead, it was the quirky electoral college and perhaps Russian tampering that gave him the victory. Second, Fox et al have been effective for years in making Democrats appear unreasonable. They pound the drum ceaselessly that liberals — any and all of them, but especially any who are running for or in office — are dangerous to the country. “Lock her up” was consistent with this view of the world. Whether true or not, it is a formula that has turned the heads of a voting block. This was a key factor in making a number of voters hold their noses and go for Trump.
This is in flux. The loony shenanigans of the Republicans — not just Trump — over the last year is shifting public perception about the party in general. It remains to be seen how big that shift will be. So far it looks pretty big. But I would argue that Democrats have to think creatively how to seize the moment and re-take the mantle of “reasonable under the circumstances” That does not mean throwing progressives under the bus. It does mean that framing policy arguments in terms of reasonableness, not just in terms of “bleeding hearts” and “social justice”.