The 2016 election is not the first time in recent history that the Republican Party has faced a fundamental crisis. In 1952, Robert A. Taft—the senior senator from Ohio known as “Mr. Republican”– sought the party’s nomination. The favorite of conservatives, Taft fought the unions and had sponsored the Taft-Harley Act, which limited organized labor’s power. He was for small and limited government, and he opposed Eastern business elites and the Establishment that preferred Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Taft also had a foreign policy indistinguishable from that of the pro-Soviet candidate for president back in 1948, Henry A. Wallace. Supported by American Communists, Wallace, like Taft, opposed NATO, accepted the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia, and believed that a peace with the Soviet Union was possible if the United States let it dominate Eastern and Central Europe.
Ike’s defeat of Taft guaranteed that the United States would maintain the bipartisan policy of exerting American leadership in the world, and that the Soviet Union would find the United States committed to stand in the way of Stalin’s expansionist goals.
Today, the equivalent of Taft in foreign policy is Donald Trump. He is the preferred candidate of ISIS, as Matt Olsen argues and as an article in Foreign Affairs also explains. ISIS’s support of Trump is the equivalent today of the support Henry A. Wallace received from the Soviet Union in the ’40s.
It is hardly surprising that each day brings news of more leading Republicans endorsing Hillary Clinton. James Glassman, who served in the Bush administration, announced his decision Tuesday in an op-ed. Glassman, like other Republicans who have endorsed Clinton, disagrees with the former secretary of State on many issues. Yet he sees no other option than to give her his support:
I learned that this is, whether we like it or not, an election between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, period. And that means if you want to stop Mr. Trump, you have no choice but to vote for Mrs. Clinton.
The main reason Mr. Glassman is voting for Clinton, however, is because he believes this is necessary to “save the Republican Party.” If Trump wins, he thinks that a party once “built on freedom and internationalism will become entrenched as a party of authoritarianism and isolation” and eventually will “atrophy and die.”
In the 1950s, Ike’s victory had the effect of preventing such an outcome. Had Taft won the nomination and then the White House, America would have faced a rise in the strength of its enemies abroad. A Taft victory would have weakened the Republican brand for generations to come.
But today, contrary to Glassman, I would argue that the Republican Party is already finished as a political institution and cannot be saved. Trump supports programs that are anything but conservative. He favors some form of universal health care, he opposes any entitlement reform, and he seems indecisive and contradictory even on immigration issues, although his tough rhetoric on immigration is what first got him support.
Let us say that Trump loses. Glassman and others believe that if this occurs, his group of conservatives can slowly act to rebuild a strong GOP that will take up serious conservative reform alternatives advocated by those who now are on the periphery of the GOP as long as Trump is its leader. I believe Glassman is wrong.
That option will fail for the following reasons. First, the Trump voters in the GOP–many of whom recently entered its ranks—now control the party and its machinery, including the RNC. They will not easily give up the name and the organization. Second, they will have the name of the Republican Party, but they will have already transformed it into a new entity—a populist/nationalist party that resembles anything but the kind of conservative party it once was. It will be the American equivalent of Le Pen’s party in France, or the UK Independence Party in Britain. Traditional conservatives who stay in it will have little or no influence at all.
I believe it will be more fruitful to build a new center-right party with a new name. Such a party will not have all the recent baggage of the Republican Party to defend. This is better than waging a prolonged fight over control of the GOP. Moreover, there are many moderate Democrats who are perturbed that their party has moved far, far to the Left, and that their attempts to move it back to the center have failed miserably. What better evidence for this do we have than Hillary Clinton being forced to change her positions and adopt those favored by Bernie Sanders’ socialist wing? These centrist and conservative Democrats—the remnant of the old Scoop Jackson-Sam Nunn wing of the party–would most likely be open to leaving the Democratic Party and joining with former Republicans in creating a new political party.
The possibility exists that we are living in the time of a new political realignment—comparable in its effect to the 1850s when the Whig Party collapsed and disappeared, and in which the Republican Party was born.
A new party that stands for fiscal and personal responsibility, a limited and functional social safety net that is not on the verge of bankruptcy, and one that defends personal liberty and does not favor the growing power of the state could appeal to current Republicans, independents, and the few remaining conservative Democrats. It would also be a party that defends American responsibility and leadership abroad, and that does not abandon that role to our opponents and enemies.
This path, I suggest, makes a lot more sense than a futile fight to get the existing Republican Party back from the Trump forces that now control it.