GOP does soul searching at Aspen Ideas Festival
Neither the Democratic nor Republican parties are humming along in harmony these days.
On the national stage last week, the presidential debates illustrated the ample challenges the Democratic Party faces. And on the local stage, discussions at the Aspen Ideas Festival showed the GOP is disjointed by competing philosophies of what defines the party, as the executive branch increases its decision-making authority under President Donald Trump.
The festival’s roster of speakers showed it wasn’t playing around — conservatives Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Bob Corker, Karl Rove and George Will were some of the big draws.
Some of them engaged in heady talk about the values of conservatism, whether inspired by Federalism’s limited government principles; the personal freedoms espoused by classic liberalism, a close cousin to libertarianism; as well as two of the hallmarks of pro-Trump conservatism — nationalism and individual liberties.
Beyond all of those isms, however, is that Trump enjoys undisputed popularity within his party, despite resentment by a number of conservative elites.
Results of a Gallup Poll, reported June 19, showed the president had a 43% job approval rating overall, yet 89% of the Republicans surveyed approved his performance.
“You have more Republicans today admiring Donald Trump, even more than admired Ronald Reagan,” Judy Woodruff, host of “PBS NewsHour,” told Will, one of America’s most influential conservative voices, on Monday at the festival, which was co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic magazine.
“The Republican Party is more homogenous today than ever before in its history,” said Will, who left the party in June 2016 as Trump’s popularity was mushrooming.
He added, “The Republican Party ceased being a vessel of conservatism. It did not damage conservatism; it damaged itself.”
Will said the Oval Office is armed with greater decision-making capabilities due to Congress’ divesting of its legislative powers that “it has no right to divest itself of.” That didn’t start with Trump, he said.
“This is a long time in the making,” he said. “It didn’t begin on Jan. 20 at noon in 2017.”
He added, “Who is happy that a president of either party can impose taxes on the American people, which is what tariffs are, unilaterally because the president has been given this vast discretion by Congress? Who is happy that the president can take appropriations for purpose A and repurpose them to be spent on B — in this case a wall — because he is given the power by Congress to declare an emergency and do that?
“We have this enormous unfettered presidency, an anemic Congress, and no one, it seems to me, can or should be happy with this disequilibrium in the wonderful constitutional architecture that Madison gave us.”
Bob Corker, former Tennessee senator and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agreed when speaking Thursday at the Ideas Fest.
“The fact is that for decades the balance of power has been moving towards the executive branch,” he said. “It’s been doing that for some time, and it’s really been magnified over the last decade or so. The country is divided. Congress is divided. It’s difficult for big problems, actually any problem, to be solved by Congress right now because of that polarity.”
“At the end of the day, constituents around the country, our citizens, want to see action take place, so they’re more forgiving, actually in many ways, and supportive of an executive branch that’s willing to take things on. To me, that’s the opposite of what ought to be happening. We should be acting as a full, equal branch.”
Trump also has managed to hit the right buttons with his base by tackling the issues of immigration, trade, political correctness and the American military’s role on a global setting, said Rove, once a senior adviser to President George W. Bush and now a political analyst.
But once Trump is out of office, whether after the 2020 elections or his second term, the Republican Party will have to chart a new course, because populists historically have not seen momentum extend beyond their runs of political influence. Rove noted that the populist ideals of Andrew Jackson, William James Bryan, Huey Long and George Wallace were fleeting because the politicians had no successors of the same political ilk. The same will happen with Trump, he said.
“We are in a place where the party’s going to have to figure out what it stands for, because Donald Trump isn’t going to be here forever,” Rove said. “But after the end, it’s hard to see what comes next, because Trump’s populism is an impulse.”
Those to watch in the GOP are the younger members of the Senate, as well as state governors, as they’ll be the ones shaping policy in the future, Rove said.
“The Republican Party is never going to be the same,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s going back to what it was. I don’t think there will ever be a figure like Trump again … but I do think the party will have to be more populist, will have to be more nationalist, socially conservative, not quite as libertarian, but have to think through what it means to be a working-class oriented party. Not just the white working classes.”
To do that, Rove said the GOP will need to focus on working class blacks and Latinos. Adding historical perspective, he noted that during the Gilded Age, the Republican Party stood for higher taxation and big government. Meanwhile, the Democrats preached states’ rights, lower taxes and limited government.
“Parties recreate themselves over time in response to changing conditions and changing coalitions,” Rove said. “That’s one of the great strengths of the American political system, which is why I love the Electoral College and everything else that it keeps us sort of in its two-party straightjacket.”
Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, suggested the modern-day Republican Party lacks aspirations for a moral or intellectual high ground.
“Occasionally I have agreed with things that the president has said or done,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as a mindless, reflexive Never Trumper, but (the column) also allowed me to articulate a vision of what conservative principles ought to be. That is very different from what the Trumpian wing of the party, which is now 85% of it or so, believes it ought to be.
“I think at the end of the day, in order to have a healthy republic, in order to have a healthy democracy, we need a morally sound and intellectually honest conservative group, and quite frankly at the moment, I don’t think we have one, except for a handful of voices who have stood by the principles of classical conservatism.”
Given the United States is in the throes of a constitutional crisis, now isn’t the time for debates over who’s pictured on American currency and who’s memorialized with a statue on public property, two prominent historians told an audience in Aspen on Saturday night.
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