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The Republican Party Blew It

Trump's rise was an opportunity to broaden the GOP's appeal. Instead, party insiders drafted a toxic platform designed to lose the White House—again.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

If there was a silver lining to Donald Trump’s victory in the GOP primary, it was that part of his appeal lay in real moderation. Trump is racist and demagogic, but he’s also secular and focused on workers, not the Wall Street tycoons and religious right that have driven Republican policy for the past three decades. In that spirit, Trump dialed back on Republican nostrums like the opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and struck a cautious tone on military intervention. That he won the primary by opposing party orthodoxy essentially obliterated the assumption that ideological conservatives were a majority faction within the GOP.

In doing so, Trump alienated many who had counted themselves among the party faithful, the activists and insiders who waged the “culture wars” of the 1980s and ’90s. Back then, Republicans believed they were fighting a “war for the soul of America,” as Pat Buchanan called it in his 1992 convention speech—a struggle that pitted conservatives against the secular, progressive factions in American politics who advocated for abortion, gun control, affirmative action, and the separation of church and state. Most of the Republican nominees in the last two decades played up the culture wars, too—until Trump. His past support for abortion, history of philandering, and blatant lack of interest in going to church has turned off many party insiders. 

Still, Trump’s rise should have been a reckoning for the political insiders and activists who were drafting the Republican platform in Cleveland last week. But there was no such soul-searching. They doubled-down on the culture wars while also adopting Trump’s most extreme positions. The platform that will be presented on Monday calls for erecting a wall along the Mexican border, the demand that the government “destroy ISIS.” But it also calls for blocking women from serving in combat roles in the military, abolishing federal funding for abortion, and rolling back the spread of pornography, which Republicans lament as a “public health crisis.”

The platform, in other words, is caught between two poles, both of which are toxic to much of the country. This was a missed opportunity for the Republicans. Had they adopted the softer social positions championed by Trump, and retained their traditional devotion to free trade, military intervention, and trickle-down economics, their party might have become more palatable to the broader public. Instead, Republican insiders drafting the platform redoubled their efforts to pull the party further to the right.

This might seem insignificant. After all, who cares about a Republican platform that will hold little sway over what Trump would do in the White House? But it’s actually a glaring indication of the party’s identity crisis—one that will make it even tougher for the next Republican nominee to broaden his (or her) appeal four years from now. In short, the platform is the perfect blueprint for not winning the White House.

It’s possible that Republicans have simply had enough soul-searching. In 2013, reflecting on having lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, the RNC released its now infamous post-mortem—the “Growth and Opportunity Project”—which investigated the party’s difficulty winning national elections. Here’s a particularly relevant segment:

Public perception of the Party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us…  

If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies…. Other minority communities, including Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, also view the Party as unwelcoming.

The 2016 Republican platform does absolutely nothing to reach out to those groups, or to reach out at all. It’s a phenomenally inward-looking document, a kind of patchwork quilt of Republican and conservative preoccupations rather than a cohesive governing manifesto. What happened to all that goodwill in the 2013 autopsy—the idea that the Republicans could embrace all sort of new demographic groups?

For one thing, the Republican Party did very little in practice to convince voters that it was interested in changing, or in accommodating new ideas or principles. But more recently, Trump happened. His candidacy has damaged the Republican Party’s ability to remodel itself for a more diverse America and ensured that the platform would adopt harsh anti-immigrant language and alienate many non-white voters, particularly Hispanics.

Once Trump had ruled out the possibility that the party could bring new constituencies into the Republican fold, the platform committee had two choices: Either maintain the status quo and play up the culture wars, as the party has been doing for decades, or move away from social issues altogether to look more like Trump himself. Torn between these two choices, the Republican insiders drafting the platform this year decided on the former—and in the process, passed up on an ideal opportunity to rework their policies for the twenty-first century.

Public opinion has lurched leftward on social issues, from gay marriage to abortion access, in the last eight years. As The Washington Post pointed out on Tuesday, “Approval of legal abortion jumped from 51 percent to 58 percent in 2015 and support climbed among Democrats and Republicans.” Support for gay marriage has also reached record highs, with six in 10 Americans saying that states should not be allowed to limit marriage to be between a man and a woman. Most Americans also disagree with the “bathroom bills” implemented in states like North Carolina this spring, which would bar transgender people from certain bathrooms.

Trump, bucking the social conservatives in his party, has voiced more moderate views on some of these issues, bringing his party more in line with prevailing public opinion. Some committee members have tried to do the same. On Monday, Rachel Hoff, the first openly gay member of a Republican platform committee, introduced an amendment acknowledging that Republicans have a “diversity of opinion” on gay marriage, according to Time. But social conservatives squashed her proposals, clinging to planks that have stayed largely the same in the last 50 years even as they seem less and less in line with prevailing public opinion. The debate underscored how hardline conservatives are the ones calling the shots in Cleveland, to the detriment of the party’s electoral hopes.

“If Republicans are very lucky,” MSNBC’s Steve Benen wrote last week, “the vast majority of Americans will have no idea what’s in the party’s new platform.” He has a point. Party platforms almost always create turf wars at the conventions, with certain factions in a party vying to leave their stamp. But in the end, very few people pay close attention them—sometimes not even the candidates. In 1996, the Republican nominee, Bob Dole, miffed the party had rejected a plank he wanted included in the abortion section of the Republican platform, said he didn’t even read it.

Still, some research suggests that party platforms do matter: People form their opinions about the party based on what the platform includes. Political scientists Elizabeth Simas at the University of Houston and Kevin Evans at Florida International University have found that in years that parties adopt particularly conservative platforms, voters tend to see the nominee as more conservative too. “Voters are in fact picking up on the parties’ objective policy positions,” they wrote in a 2011 paper. That means that a platform like this one could have lasting impacts on how the Republican Party is perceived.

If so, the perception of the Republican Party gleaned from its platform is one of a party in an ongoing existential crisis, torn not only between various contradictory constituencies, but between the past and the future. Trump, for all his reactionary positions on immigration and trade, would have brought the Republican Party a little closer to the future, at least on social issues. A platform that incorporated traditional Republican planks like tax cuts and military intervention with Trump’s moderate positions on social issues would still be far from what the average American believes, but much closer to what the 2013 autopsy called for.

But rather than leaping at this chance to broaden its appeal, the party decided to bow to its traditional base of older, white voters. Therein lies the problem for Republican elites interested in convincing the rank-and-file that they need to accommodate new constituencies and ideas. The base is getting older. Conservative Republican voters believe that their traditional values, despite having grown increasingly unpopular in the last eight years, are American values. Unless someone else comes along after Trump who can convince the Republican base that they need to shake up their positions on social issues, the party will appear increasingly out of touch with the mainstream. For now, however, the party will continue to exist in a state of existential confusion, their platform working like a series of walls between the Grand Old Party and the very voters it needs to survive.