I’ve long admired Bruce Bartlett. But like all the truly reasonable people who continue to call themselves Republicans, I do think he has a screw loose. If I had been a Democrat my whole life, but it kept changing to the point where what I had always thought the Democratic Party represented was now found in the Republican Party, I would become a Republican. I’m not wedded to the name. Bartlett is a man whose beliefs place him clearly in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and yet he continues to hang onto the Republican Party. In this way, he is like Josh Barro and David Cay Johnston. [In a private correspondence with Johnston, I learned that he does not consider himself a Republican, and pretty much never did. He found my belief that he considered himself a conservative amusing. So I’m apparently totally wrong about Johnston. -FM]
But I knew what Bartlett was up to earlier this week when he wrote, The Moderate Republican’s Case for Trump. It wasn’t necessary even to read the subtitle, “Only Trump can make the GOP sane again — by losing in a landslide to Hillary Clinton.” He’s such a smart guy, how can he think this? It must be like a father who just doesn’t want to believe that, in fact, his son is a serial killer. Bartlett so wants to believe that his party really is what he’s so long thought. But he couldn’t be more wrong.
Bartlett argued that a Trump nomination would lead to a “defeat of Barry Goldwater proportions” and this would “prove beyond doubt that the existing conservative coalition cannot win the presidency.” But this is not how elections work. Take the 1964 election where Goldwater lost by almost 23 percentage points. Did that cause the Republicans to moderate? Not at all. They nominated Richard Nixon — a hardcore cold warrior who ran on the idea of the “silent majority” — those people who weren’t demonstrating against the Vietnam war and who supposedly loved it — and “law and order” — basically oppression of the weak and suppression of speech. Yeah, those Republicans really learned their lesson!
But there is an important connection here. Bartlett claims that John McCain and Mitt Romney lost because they were encumbered “by the right-wing baggage essential for winning the nomination.” But this is total garbage. First: they lost because the economic environment favored Obama. Second: neither man was a moderate. But this is what passes for Republican moderation in polite society. It’s like that argument I got in with “danny” over racism: unless someone is explicit about their wanting to dismantle the New Deal and Great Society, we are all expected to pretend that they would never do such a thing. So what Bartlett is saying is that Donald Trump would prove to Republicans that they can’t talk like Trump, even though the actual policies of Trump would likely be more moderate than any of the “moderate” Republicans that would come later.
Bartlett then goes on in his article to recount the history of Ronald Reagan — a totally ahistorical history, but the standard one that Republicans tell themselves. And he repeats the true, but deceptive claim that Reagan raised taxes 11 times, as though that makes up for the fact that the top marginal income tax rate was 70% when he came in and 28% when he left. In terms of domestic policy, Reagan was more conservative than any president. But Bartlett’s false memories of the time (he was in the administration) are doubtless what keeps him thinking that the modern Republican Party has been hijacked, rather than having just evolved the way that Reagan would have wanted.
But what is most ridiculous about Bartlett’s article is his cluelessness as to why people vote Republican. He understands that his side of the party is elitist. He repeats the joke, “Republicans could never understand why they lost an election because all their friends at the country club voted Republican.” But somehow he thinks that the “yahoos” (His term!) will just continue to vote Republican in the name of truly conservative foreign policy (which is what the Democrats offer) and a truly conservative economic policy (which is also what the Democrats offer).
The argument that Bartlett is making is the same argument that pundits made after John McCain lost by almost 8 percentage points. And it is the argument that pundits made after Romney lost by 4 percentage points. “The Republicans will have to moderate now!” But they didn’t and they won’t. And the idea that political parties move that quickly is ridiculous anyway. If the Republican Party is going to stop being a revolutionary power, it is going to take decades. And that’s especially true given that it can continue being a regional power where racism is still a big motivator of the electorate.