On the same day as the Michigan, Mississippi, and Idaho primaries, New York Times columnist David Brooks published a cri de coeur on behalf of the moderate Republican establishment. Starting with an eyebrow-raising metaphor, Brooks compared the Republican primary electorate to a barfly on the prowl at closing time. Intoxicated by “strong and nasty Trump cocktails,” Republican voters start to think Cruz looks pretty attractive. “Have your standards really fallen so low so fast?” Brooks pleaded. “Can you remember your 8 p.m. selves, and all the hope you had about entering a campaign with such a deep bench of talented candidates?”
Well, Republican primary voters apparently had their beer goggles firmly in place on Tuesday. In Michigan and Mississippi, they apparently found some Trump Vodka in an abandoned warehouse and fixed martinis all night, delivering Trump resounding victories. For good measure, the Donald took the Hawaii caucuses as well. Cruz held his own, winning in Idaho and finishing a respectable second in the other three contests, allowing him to build on his delegate count.
It only gets worse from there for the GOP establishment. Marco Rubio, the candidate your sober self would allegedly be happy to take to dinner with the parents, suffered an ignominious series of defeats, the latest humiliation for a campaign that’s fast becoming a legendary trainwreck. The candidate that many observers (including myself) expected the party to eventually rally around earned a grand total of zero delegates from the American heartland. John Kasich didn’t do as badly, but the fact that he finished behind both Trump and Cruz in Michigan firmly established him as a candidate who, in a wild best-case scenario, uses a favorite-son win in Ohio to present himself as the establishment candidate of choice in a contested convention.
So things went about as badly for Brooks and the moderate establishment as they could have. But the larger argument of his column is also worthy of examination. In singling out Trump and Cruz as the villains the Republicans must slay if they hope to regain respectability, Brooks is in deep denial about the state of his party—a denial that is shared by Brooks’s center-right brethren.
Brooks has a story about the fight over the Republican presidential nomination that has become a common one. Trump has no longstanding commitment to the Republican Party; does not even make a pretense of knowing anything about policy; breaks from party orthodoxy on issues like trade; mobilizes racial and ethnic resentment in a way that is too loud and overt for elite Republicans; and is thus unacceptable. But Ted Cruz’s straightforwardly radical conservatism isn’t acceptable either:
If the G.O.P. is going to survive as a decent and viable national party, it can’t cling to the fading orthodoxy Cruz represents. But it can’t shift to ugly Trumpian nationalism, either. It has to find a third alternative: limited but energetic use of government to expand mobility and widen openness and opportunity. That is what Kasich, Rubio, Paul Ryan, and others are stumbling toward.
Brooks’s narrative, however, founders on one problem: Substantively, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Cruz and alleged moderates like Kasich, Rubio, and Ryan. And none of them have policy agendas that are any more serious than Trump’s. Let’s consider what these “moderate” alternatives stand for.
John Kasich: The Ohio governor has taken the role of the moderate, sensible adult in the primaries. He has maintained an avuncular tone and refused to ape Trump’s insult comedy routine (as the hapless Rubio did). He also broke from party orthodoxy as governor by accepting the Medicaid expansion offered by the Affordable Care Act. But there’s absolutely nothing moderate about his policy agenda. He favors a massive upper-class tax cut that would slash the top marginal rate by more than ten points and completely eliminate the taxes on investment and inherited income. In addition to reducing federal revenues to redistribute wealth upward, he’s calling for $100 billion in additional defense spending. Even if these policies were mostly funded by debt, they would still require major cuts to federal spending for important programs for the poor and middle class. But he also favors a balanced budget amendment, which means the necessary cuts would be absolutely savage.
And before you give him too much credit for accepting the Medicaid expansion, like every major Republican candidate he favors repealing the Affordable Care Act and gestures at replacing it with a bunch of empty platitudes (“patient-centered care, choices, market competition, decentralized decision-making, higher quality, respect for individuals, and an end to Obamacare’s big government interference”). In practical terms, this mean repealing a program that has provided health insurance to 20 million people and replacing it with less than nothing. Kasich might be moderate in tone, but there’s nothing moderate about him in substance.
Marco Rubio: The erstwhile Great Establishment Hope was once a poster boy for the “reformicons,” a small and apparently uninfluential group of conservative intellectuals who urged the Republican Party to move beyond its obsessive focus on cutting taxes for the rich and start providing some benefits for ordinary families. But his futile bid for the presidency involves diving into conservative orthodoxy headfirst. He’s offering a massive tax cut—costing $6.8 trillion over the next decade—heavily titled towards the upper class. This, of course, is paired with a big increase in military spending. The effect of all this on actually necessary programs would be devastating. He’s on board with the Republican agenda of “replacing” the ACA with some clichés about “patient-centered” care scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin. He does, however, believe in “energetic” government in at least one respect: He has argued that the Constitution requires abortion to be banned at any stage of the pregnancy, without exception.
Paul Ryan: The reluctant speaker of the House is the pioneer of pairing a moderate, wonky-sounding tone with nutty, radical ideas. His budget plan—upper-class tax cuts paid for by a combination of debt and cuts in spending for the poor, more defense spending, and replacing the Affordable Care act with tort reform and deregulation (in other words, worse than nothing)—set the template that virtually all elite Republicans have followed.
The alternatives to Trump and Cruz that Brooks touts, in other words, fully reflect the Republican orthodoxy that turned Trump and Cruz into frontrunners. Like Cruz, they’re all committed to radical and unpopular fiscal plans that, in a time of increasing inequality and economic insecurity, would gut cherished programs for the poor and the middle class to pay for a huge redistribution of wealth to the top 10 percent. Like Trump, they’re also completely unserious about policy, making ridiculous claims about the economic magic of tax cuts that have left the finances of states like Louisiana and Kansas in utter ruins. They are barely even pretending to offer an alternative to the 20 million people they want to deprive of health insurance. (Trump’s health care “plan” is essentially cut-and-pasted from the non-plans of his allegedly more serious rivals.) And for good measure, they’re all climate-change deniers.
Whatever relationship they have to their party elites, Cruz and Trump are perfect symbols of what the Republican Party has become, however much Brooks and the establishment might prefer to pretend otherwise.