Bruce Bartlett’s Ridiculous Trump Gambit

Bruce BartlettI’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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

13 thoughts on “Bruce Bartlett’s Ridiculous Trump Gambit

  1. Your comment about Nixon being more conservative than Goldwater is ridiculous. Instead of citing actual data, like ideology scores, for example, you essentially point to Nixon’s temper and contempt for hippies as proof. Goldwater’s Americans for Democratic Action ideology score is a perfect 0 on a scale from 0 – 100, 0 being most conservative. Nixon’s DW-Nominate score is a 0.56 on a scale from -1 to 1, 1 being the most conservative.

    The rest of your article doesn’t seem to objectively look at history or simply misses the point of what Bartlett was saying. Reagan, for example, had a lower DW-Nominate ideology score than Bush II. Furthermore, like Bartlett mentions, Reagan signed many liberal to moderate laws. The top tax rate was lowered to 28%, but capital gains taxes were raised to be equal to the top rate. Subsequent administrations lowered the capital gains rates and increased the top marginal income rate.

    • Did I say that Nixon was more conservative than Goldwater? I certainly didn’t mean to say that. But the Republican presidential candidates were: Nixon, Goldwater, and Nixon. So Goldwater did not cause the Republicans to rethink where they were going. Ultimately, Reagan’s nomination in 1980 was just the Republicans’ getting the branding right on Goldwater. What made Goldwater so scary to voters was the idea that he might start a nuclear war; it wasn’t his ideology.

      As for Reagan, he’s a fascinating guy. I’m writing about START I right now — which Reagan got going. But you (and Bartlett) are nitpicking on Reagan in terms of economic matters. Even as I was writing this, I knew I was sweeping a lot aside. But all I was doing was countering Bartlett’s facile claim about Reagan’s 11 tax increases. Regardless, there is lots more than top marginal tax rate (although I think lowering the level down to $30K for a married couple as the cut off for the 28% rate was a low blow indeed) or tax rates at all.

      And finally, I have problems with the VoteView methodology, which I discussed around here before.

  2. So your point is what? Other then you dont like Bruce’s piece and (in my view incorrectly) challenge his conclusions…what is your point?

    • I think my point is clear enough in the last paragraph: he is making the same argument that has failed many times before, which is that if only the Republicans are defeated badly enough, they will reform. But it isn’t just this. Political parties are like free markets, not command economies. The Republican Party itself is not some monolith, but rather the net result of all its stakeholders. It’s taken decades to get to this point, and the Republican Party will take more than one collective epiphany before it will begin the slow journey back to sanity — which it will do one voter at a time. His argument is simplistic. If Bartlett were just some idiot, I wouldn’t have written anything. But he is usually a careful and insightful thinker.

      There is another aspect to this. If Trump became the nominee and the economy dove into recession, he would have a good chance of winning the general election. That’s straight political science. So Bartlett’s gambit isn’t just ridiculous (because it wouldn’t do what he claims) — it’s dangerous.

    • mike & Robert — I think there’s an additional factor at play of what conservative policies were politically possible and what conservative electoral strategies were working at the time. Clearly most working-class people who supported Reagan did so because they bought into the nonsense of welfare cadillacs, as a reaction to busing and other 70’s policies which didn’t appear to benefit white voters. Not thinking the manufacturing base in America would be destroyed, for largely dumb reasons. (Altering a community’s job base for trade benefits can be a good thing, if it doesn’t pit workers with no leverage against each other and instead focuses on what those workers do well. Our “free trade” treaties aren’t in this category.)

      To this day I don’t think most Americans really understand what Reagan stood for. Maybe most Britishers didn’t understand what Thatcher stood for. They were quite powerful, even brilliant, advocates for a system that promised to benefit everyone and ended up only helping a small few. They changed the world, in their way, as much as a Gandhi or Joe Hill. I wouldn’t inscribe their face into innocent mountains myself — but, then, I wouldn’t inscribe the faces at Mount Rushmore. Not even the face of Crazy Horse nearby, for what it counts.
      I suspect it’s going to be another 25 years, at least, before we start getting down to what was going on (hope you’re around then, I probably won’t be!)

      • I do think it all comes down to economics. That’s how the Nazis got into power. If the economy sucks and there is a political party claiming to have the fix, people vote for it. I wish politics were more complicated than that. I wish people were a little smarter about economics. I also wish I had a pony. (Just kidding: horses are evil animals!) Regardless, politics isn’t rational. And I don’t think that the anti-intellectual natural of the Republican base — which has been cultivated for at least two decades — ends just because the Republicans get beat badly in an election.

  3. Bruce himself posted your article on my Facebook page, so he must approve. I have known Bruce personally since 1980 (he introduced me to my daughter’s mother because it was a way to dump her). He has always been very cynical.

    Nobody votes FOR a candidate for President; everybody votes AGAINST the other one, whom the voter believes would be worse. Reagan got Carter’s “get rid of him” votes, Nixon got LBJ/HHH’s “get rid of them votes,” Bill Clinton got GHW Bush’s “get rid of him votes.” Independents always vote in the Negative, because our bipolar electoral system (particularly the “plurality wins” rule, and the 12th Amendment make 3rd candidates into mere “spoilers” sending a mixed message).

    Reforms, like ranked choice voting, have been proposed, but even the UK most recently rejected that reform, so get happy with the bipolar disorder our political system suffers from. Trump would be just “electric shock” and just create convulsions instead of reforms.

    • Ah, I had wondered why the site went crazy. It also explains why I got such cogent criticisms.

      What greatly concerns me is what I mentioned in a previous comment: given the right economic conditions, anyone can get elected. That’s not just here. So we’ve got to be careful. Then again, maybe Trump would be a great president. Certainly Reagan was great in terms of nuclear arms reduction. Who would have predicted that? (For the record: I don’t think Trump would make a great president.)

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  5. ” Certainly Reagan was great in terms of nuclear arms reduction.” Would you explain that? What “reduction?”

    • I’m referring to START I. The US and Russia have far fewer nuclear weapons today. I think Reagan has to be given his due in this regard, even though he was horrible in most other ways.

    • @crs52 & Frank: From biographies of Reagan I’ve read, he got big on nuke reduction after seeing “The Day After.” Scary nukewar! Gotta act! Just like he was a New Dealer until some convincing person told him business regulation was the Devil Incarnate, and banged every starlet in Hollywood he could while later becoming a fundamentalist Christian, because he got hooked on Coming Home To Jesus.

      “The Great Communicator” is a fine moniker for Reagan, because he sold the spiel and sold it well. The notion conservatives have now, that he should be esteemed as some kind of seminal intellectual force, is pure nonsense. There was a mad Danish king in the 18th century whose personal physician convinced him to institute liberal social reforms (until the doctor had an affair with the queen and got caught.) Too bad Reagan never fell under the sway of someone like that . . .

      • The Day After was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who (to bring two threads together) wrote and directed the two best Star Trek movies. I had read a story that Reagan sent him a note about how much the film affected him. But sadly, it wasn’t true. But I do know that the White House screened the film and seemed to have a big effect.

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