Is that the real question, though? After a year that confounded longtime observers of the Republican Party and much of its leadership, Hugh Hewitt’s question to Mitch McConnell on this morning’s show might aim at the wrong dynamic. The Senate Majority Leader assured Hugh that Donald Trump will not change the GOP — but perhaps the better question might be whether the GOP has changed already — and that Trump is the product of the change, rather than an agent of it:
HH: You also write a defense of the Republican Party. We are the party of –I say we, because I am a lifetime Republican– abolitionism, the Homestead Act, land grant universities, women suffrage, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You were very disappointed in Goldwater, though he got you motivated into politics [by him] when he did not support the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We are for public infrastructure that’s generally Hamiltonian, like ports and roads and stuff like that. But does the Republican Party have an identity crisis, because Donald Trump said he’s going to change the nature of the party, Senator McConnell? And I don’t know much. If I come around to supporting him, it’ll be because of that Supreme Court, and because he’s going to rebuild the military. But I’m not sure he’s bought into the historical limited government theory. Do you?
MM: Well, whether he has or not, he’s not going to change the Republican Party. You know, we’ve had nominees before who were not deeply into Republican politics and philosophy. Think of Eisenhower, for example. But Trump is not going to change the institution. He’s not going to change the basic philosophy of the party. And I’m comfortable voting for him, because on the big things that I think have the greatest impact on the future of the country. At the top of the list is the Supreme Court, I think he’ll be just fine.
What, pray tell, is the basic philosophy of the party? Officially, it’s movement conservatism that rely on free markets, free trade, limited government, and pro-life positions — with some allowances for pragmatism and openings for good-faith negotiations. The GOP had several candidates that represented that basic philosophy, at least as understood before this cycle. Most of them never made it to the first primary event — Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry come to mind — and the rest faded away shortly afterward. Trump won with an explicitly anti-free-trade program, has barely given lip service to the pro-life movement, and has appeared temperamentally unlinked from limited government and restrained executive power.
The party’s voters rewarded that with the nomination. What does that tell us about the “basic philosophy” of the party? Perhaps the Republican Party platform hasn’t changed, although that process will be interesting to watch in Cleveland after this cycle, but the Republican Party electorate certainly appears to have changed.
To McConnell’s point, though, that may not last terribly long, for better and for worse. Ronald Reagan changed the basic philosophy of the party, but he spent decades on the ground building up that transition for the party — first on the General Electric dinner circuit, then with Barry Goldwater, through two terms as governor of California, and then finally on his second attempt at the GOP’s nomination. Reagan had a specific ideological agenda. In this sense, Trump’s not going to move the party, because Trump is almost exactly the opposite — a politician who can be counted on to be entirely transactional, and whose base consideration in those transactions is entirely personal.
That may not be all bad, either. Voters, especially those in swing states, are tired of ideological wars and want problems to get fixed. Trump’s Let’s Make a Deal approach will appeal to them, and that won’t necessarily impact the party’s philosophical position much. However, the flip side to this is the potential for losing the edge Republicans assume they’ll get as the party controlling the White House. If Trump wins and the GOP holds the Senate, then Trump will absolutely stick to his Supreme Court list and govern from the Right. If Democrats take control of the Senate in a Trump presidency, though, will Trump fight through filibusters over Supreme Court picks — or will he cut deals with Democrats to make himself look like a winner? If Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure as governor in California provides any precedent to celebrity executives, watch out — or at least double efforts to hold the upper chamber.