The relatively rare moments of economic analysis and political outreach in the second Republican debate — Chris Christie talking about income stagnation, or Marco Rubio lamenting the “millions of people in this country living paycheck to paycheck,” or Ben Carson admitting the minimum wage might require increasing and fixing, or Jeb Bush setting out the necessary goal of accelerated economic growth or John Kasich calling for a “sense of hope, a sense of purpose, a sense of unity” — only served to highlight the opportunity cost of the Trump summer.
Let me recall a little ancient history, from three years ago. After the 2012 presidential election, the Republican Party was left with a number of large political deficits — with minorities (particularly Latinos but also Asian-Americans), with women, with younger voters, with working-class voters in key states (such as Ohio). In the arc of that year’s GOP nomination contest — involving 20 debates and tens of millions of dollars in ads — issues such as upward mobility, education, middle-class concerns, poverty, strong communities, safe streets, corporate welfare, the environment, cultural renewal and immigration were either hardly mentioned or, in the case of immigration, discussed in the most disaffecting way possible.
Mitt Romney was nearly beaten by a series of joke candidates and survived by taking positions that exaggerated GOP weaknesses in the general election. In the hopes of serious Republicans — or at least Republicans serious about the success of their party — the 2016 election process would begin the recovery. A strong stable of candidates would update the 1980 Reagan economic playbook, addressing modern challenges of cultivating skills and social capital, and seeking a greater degree of economic mobility across the board. The Obama economy — which has seen household income fall and poverty rise — would provide an opening. And the Republican primary electorate would give a talented field the intellectual support and leeway to oppose outworn or extreme ideas within their own coalition and to produce an agenda relevant to our time.
Many (including me) thought this process of crawling out of an electoral hole — after losing the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections — was difficult but doable. I sat around tables at conferences with Republican policy experts who believed the same. Bush and Rubio, in particular, began the typical effort of hiring interesting thinkers and producing interesting speeches.
Donald Trump clearly is uninterested in this reform project. But his damage is not merely an intellectually hollow campaign driven by the resentment of foreigners; it is the suspension of an essential GOP reform process. That this suspension may not be temporary is now the sum of Republican fears. Trump is either Herman Cain, or a cartoon version of Barry Goldwater. This would be the 1964 race stripped of all ideological content. The stomping and jeering conservative rebels at the Cow Palace hated the elitist, Eastern Republican establishment. But these rebels (generally) had a conservative or libertarian vision of an alternative. Trump’s alternative is always himself. “He’s not a conservative,” said Bobby Jindal at Wednesday’s undercard debate. “He’s not a liberal. He’s not a Democrat. He’s not a Republican. He’s not an independent. He believes in Donald Trump.”
Trump’s defeat is now a matter of Republican survival. The candidate himself, as the debate demonstrated once again, is small, petulant and out of his depth on policy. And Trumpism apparently regards the speaking of Spanish as un-American, contemplates one of the largest forced migrations in human history and spreads destructive, unscientific nonsense about childhood vaccines. The summer of Trump has been a season of toxicity, ugliness and racially charged resentment.
But the GOP’s survival does not guarantee success. Trump has deepened the electoral problems of 2012 in nearly every respect. And Republicans now require not just a serious, policy-oriented reformer, but someone with the exceptional political skills to remove Trump’s new layer of political damage. Any successful GOP candidate will need to be the anti-Trump, rejecting the language and philosophy of Trumpism as offensive and fundamentally at odds with the ideals of the party they represent.
In 2016, the GOP’s greatest challenge may not be overcoming the Democratic nominee, who is likely (as of now) to be weak and wounded, but overcoming the worst ideas and tendencies that have emerged in their own party.
Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.