And there shall be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth …. again. Once again, movement conservatives have gone into a Republican presidential primary season arguing that the time had come to nominate a true follower of the faith. For the second time in a row, the party has chosen a moderate from the northeast instead. This time, conservatives cannot console themselves that voters didn’t have an option, as Ted Cruz managed to survive almost to the end as the alternate to Donald Trump.
For that matter, other movement conservatives fared even worse. Governors Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal had track records of successful conservative reforms in both governance and in education, and dropped out long before the first ballot was cast in the primaries. Jeb Bush, who had some baggage with his family name but also had a history of conservative governance, garnered a huge donor base and did next to nothing with it. The only Tea Party conservatives left in the race after the first rounds in the primary were the two with the least experience – Cruz and Marco Rubio; Rubio dropped out after less than two months.
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Instead of choosing a movement conservative or a candidate who could claim to be at least close to it, voters selected Donald Trump as the last man standing in the Republican primary. After winning Indiana convincingly by over 183,000 votes, Trump saw his last two rivals exit the race within 24 hours. Cruz, who thought that the conservatives in Indiana would rally to his banner, withdrew almost immediately after the polls closed; John Kasich waited until the next afternoon.
This demonstrates a hard truth for movement conservatives: they and their movement no longer matter in the Republican Party. And they may not have mattered for a while.
Evidence for this can be found in the exit polling in many states, but Indiana’s data speaks well enough to this. A third of all Republican primary voters identified as “very conservative,” but 45 percent of those voted for Trump, not Cruz. Another 44 percent identified as “somewhat conservative,” and 55 percent of those voted for Trump, too.
This took place just days after declaring his conservatism irrelevant. “I’m a conservative, but at this point, who cares?” Trump commented at the California Republican Party convention. “We’ve got to straighten out the country.”
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Conservatives may scoff at hearing this, arguing that conservative policies and principles offer the only path to “straighten out the country.” However, Trump’s statement resonates with voters, especially those in swing states, who have tired of intellectual arguments far removed from the reality of their lives, and want pragmatic solutions for the issues facing the country, and especially their communities.
That message came through loud and clear in research for my book Going Red, which focuses on how Republicans have to engage swing counties in order to start winning presidential elections. The same lessons apply to the conservative movement -- perhaps even more strongly. For too long, conservatives have failed to engage in local communities, and to apply principles in practical ways that build relevance for conservatism into the lives of everyday people.
On top of that, conservatives even at the national level have failed to offer solutions for issues that touch the lives of voters. Perhaps no better example exists than Obamacare. Conservatives in Congress, led in part by Cruz himself, have repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and Cruz led an ill-considered partial government shutdown in order to “defund” the president’s signature health care law.
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After six years of attacking the program, conservatives have done little to curtail it, let alone stop it – mainly because they lack the power to do so, a detail that they avoided while making lots of foolish promises about forcing Obama to jettison Obamacare in 2010, 2012, and 2014.
Even worse, they have offered no coherent solution as a replacement. The debate over the ACA began almost seven years ago, and health insurance access had been a controversial issue for 15 years prior to that. Republicans and conservatives have spent seven years opposing the law, but still have not come up with an alternative that addresses the issues that prevented many from accessing health insurance – cost, pre-existing conditions, and availability. They promise a plan will come this summer … maybe.
People in swing counties see Republicans, and especially the conservative factions within it, as the party of no, not the party of solutions. Opposition parties and movements have to say no, but to succeed they have to find ways to get voters to say yes as well.
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Fortunately, conservatism is not destined for irrelevance. Some conservative organizations – Americans for Prosperity chief among them – have eschewed electoral politics and philosophical rhetoric in favor of community engagement. They make themselves part of their communities, offer real assistance to people while contextualizing free-market economics as the solution for the lives of those who live there.
An explosion of regulatory activity at the federal level now has Washington encroaching on the businesses and lives of more Americans than ever, the cost for which the Competitive Enterprise Institute estimates as $15,000 a year for every US household. That gives even greater opportunities for small-government conservatives to offer specific solutions that will improve the lives of people in a direct and concrete manner.
Conservatism has to be more than a debating society. It has to offer practical improvements, and in order to do that it has to engage people where they live. For too long, the conservative movement has mainly argued philosophy and employed obstructionism while assuming the rest of country understood the stakes. As this primary has demonstrated, even many self-identified conservatives have tired of ideology and all-or-nothing politics.
Until the conservative movement rolls up its sleeves and does the hard work of engaging voters and applying solutions rather than slogans, the reaction from voters they desperately need will continue to be, “Who cares? We have to straighten out the country.”