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Commentary: The GOP will moderate or die

At this point, it’s clear Donald Trump is likely to lose the election. He’s down in crucial battleground polls, and to the extent he’s “expanded the map,” he’s done it primarily to Democrats’ advantage.

So it would be prudent to ask what the GOP will look like once Trump has lost. Nothing will likely change in the immediate aftermath – Republicans and conservatives are now quite used to failure at the national level, having only won the popular vote once since 1988. In fact, they’ve gotten quite good at monetizing defeat: this faction blames that faction, fundraising mailers are sent, and the consultants all get paid in the end.

Still, if the GOP ever wants to win again, much less become the dominant party, it will have to change. And that change will involve a severe moderating of the Republican agenda.

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This may all sound well and good to elite Republicans in Washington, who’ve wished for some time that they could moderate in certain ways, particularly on social issues like abortion and immigration. In their minds, the winning formula is some combination of libertarian economic policy and a hyper-aggressive foreign policy, with social conservatism thrown a few crumbs.

Here’s the rub, though: the economic policies these Republicans tend to favor – small government, entitlement reform, and diminished oversight of financial institutions – are deeply unpopular. In fact, these policies are disliked by many grassroots Republicans, as we saw with Trump’s victory in the primaries despite his big government platform.

Even major tax cuts, that central objective of Republican politicians for decades, has become a hard sell. More than 75 percent of Americans say they want higher taxes on millionaires, according to the 2012 American National Election Study, while nearly 60 percent want higher taxes on corporations.

Big government is here to stay for the foreseeable future, not least because Republican voters themselves, particularly older ones, are increasingly dependent on federal programs. (Those “keep your government hands off my Medicare” posters sighted at tea party rallies were no myth.) It would make sense, then, that the goal for the GOP should be to make government efficiency a priority while ditching the libertarian gospel of slashing benefits in the name of freedom.

So when we’re talking about a more moderate GOP, we’re not talking about the one of the establishment’s dreams; differently, we’re likely talking about a soft populist approach that remains culturally conservative. 

For the sake of party unity, it would still be hostile to both abortion and low-skill immigration, albeit in less absolutist and demagogic terms. In order to attract new voters, it would also champion a social safety net and the higher revenues needed to make it better, while still resisting the excesses of the left. This arrangement would be the best way to hold the party together, and to win elections against Democrats in the future.

On this point, the GOP should watch what Theresa May is doing in Britain quite closely.

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“Time to reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and to embrace a new center ground in which government steps up,” she said earlier this month at the first Conservative Party conference since she became Prime Minister in the wake of the Brexit vote.

May signaled that her Conservative government is moving left on economic issues, and a bit rightward on cultural ones such as immigration, as a way to alleviate concerns that can give way to far-right populism. Even critics of her agenda admit that it’s a politically savvy approach, and as the American right once looked to Margaret Thatcher for inspiration, they may do well now to look to May.

In the meantime, conservatives and Republicans in the U.S. will soon be embroiled in a long discussion of how to move forward, a debate that is already producing a lot of unworkable ideas.

Assuming Trump loses, we’ll see a lot of conservatives say that the GOP’s failure in 2016 was that it wasn’t conservative enough. We hear this every four years – if only our candidate wasn’t such a squish, we’d be in the White House! – though it’s slightly more plausible now given Trump’s many deviations from conservative orthodoxy.

We’ll also see Trump devotees proclaim that their candidate only lost because of the weakness and treachery of the GOP establishment. According to this group, a future GOP must emphasize on fighting “globalists”, restricting trade, ending immigration, and generally becoming more illiberal and populist

While these two big factions go to war – think Paul Ryan and National Review on one side, Jeff Sessions and Breitbart on the other – there will be a third current that says that some sort of mash-up of Trumpian nationalism and traditional libertarian conservatism is necessary.

None of these options seem especially promising. The pre-Trump conservative message has already been rejected by the national electorate numerous times, and voters increasingly seem to be moving left, which would make a conservative resurgence unlikely. 

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Moreover, Trump showed during the primaries how even the interests of the party rank-and-file don’t really line up with the concerns of stalwart conservative libertarians like the Koch Brothers, who have spent a lot of money over the years purging Republican moderates from Congress. The ideologues’ grip on the party has loosened, which gives an opportunity for moderates to rejoin the GOP in positions of influence.

Keep in mind that even as the GOP is as unpopular nationally as it’s ever been, moderate Republicans have shown the ability to not only win in blue states, but prosper there. For example, moderate Republican Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland are probably the two most popular politicians in the country, with both enjoying approval ratings hovering around 75 percent.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are on a long-march leftward, and at some point they’re likely to get too radical for their own good. Young voters are already decidedly to the left of the Democratic mainstream on a whole host of issues, and given the importance of millennials to that party’s coalition, that alone should give the party a more progressive bent in years to come. 

Eventually, then, the Democrats will begin to alienate the mushy middle of American politics. In order to win primaries, Democratic politicians will have to make more and more compromises with the increasingly esoteric concerns of activists. The inevitable dysfunction that results from that will be a mirror image of what’s happened to the GOP in recent years, as fringe issues become party dogma and swing voters are left looking for other options.

That presents the GOP with a major opportunity to win again at the national level, assuming they’re willing to moderate their message. The country is moving left, particularly when it comes to economic issues, and Republicans can follow suit or go extinct. 

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