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Opinion | The Republican Party Is Doomed




The 2020 election will be transformative like few in our history. It will end with the death of the Republican Party as we know it, leaving the survivors to begin the struggle to renew the party of Lincoln and make it relevant for our times. It will liberate the Democratic Party from the country’s suffocating polarization and allow it to use government to address the vast array of problems facing the nation.

From listening to the waves of fraught criticism that followed each of the Democratic debates so far, you would not think 2020 was such a juncture. Commentators worried that the candidates’ anti-business policies and over-the-top plans for government would drive away moderate voters. They watched the candidates excite the Democratic base at the expense of independent voters whom they believe long for a return to bipartisanship. The commentators were just as befuddled that the Democratic candidates were critical of President Barack Obama, who knew something about “electability.”

Yes, Mr. Obama won in 2012, but he was the first president since Woodrow Wilson to win a second term with fewer Electoral College votes and a smaller winning margin in the popular vote over his closest rival than in his first election. Of course, Mr. Obama was met by a Tea Party revolt that helped push many white working class voters away from the Democratic Party, but his administration’s rescue of the big banks, along with prolonged unemployment and lower or stagnant wages for the whole of his first term, meant that the Democratic base failed to turn out and defend him in election after election. As a result, Mr. Obama presided over the crash of the Democratic Party in 2010 and 2014 that gave the Republican Party control of Congress and total partisan control in just over half of the states.

The elites who mostly live in America’s dynamic metropolitan areas were satisfied with America’s economic progress after the financial crash, but overall it helped make Donald Trump electable. He understood how dissatisfied the country was with the status quo. So rather than asking voters which candidate is more “electable” or who has the best chance of defeating President Trump, we need to ask which leader best understands this tumultuous period. Which candidate has a theory of the case that pushes aside other interpretations and critiques?

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I learned as a young professor from E. E. Schattschneider’s “Semi-Sovereign People” and then later as an adviser to President Bill Clinton that those who figure out what the fight is actually about are able to set the agenda and motivate voters to get involved and pick a side.

The financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 left the vast majority of working people and the Democrats’ base of African-Americans, Hispanics, single women and millennials shattered for years. They lost much of their wealth and were forced into new jobs that often paid less. Many faced prohibitive student debt. With wages stagnant for a decade, they were frustrated with the daunting costs of health care, prescription drugs, child care and housing. Yet in the main, Mr. Obama, Hillary Clinton — and now Mr. Trump — hailed the economy’s progress, the millions of new jobs. But that was and is clueless. Mr. Trump will be the latest presidential candidate punished by the voters for not getting it.

The Democrats in the 2018 wave election did get it and made their biggest gains, compared with 2016, not in the suburbs — despite winning most of their new seats there — but in the rural areas and among white working class voters, particularly women. This pullback from Mr. Trump among white working class women in particular went further this year. As of 2019, he enjoyed only a single-digit lead with the voters who played such a big role in the 2016 surprise. In 2018, Democrats succeeded by attacking Republicans for attempting to repeal Obamacare and failing to lower skyrocketing prescription drug costs. They proposed trillion-dollar investments in infrastructure and battled to drive dark money out of politics.

Mr. Trump and the Republican Congress continued to seek the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, working both to make it fail in practice and to slash federal health care spending for seniors and the poor. That made health care the top reason for voting for Democrats in 2018, but it also revealed what has become a defining partisan difference: a Republican Party determined to destroy government outside of defense and a Democratic Party determined to use it expansively.

The Democrats today are reacting not only to Mr. Trump but to the Tea Party-dominated Republican Party that preceded and prepared the way for him with gridlocked government. After coming to power in the 2010 wave election, the Republicans tried to keep the government from addressing virtually any problem at all. The Tea Party movement was animated by its hostility to Mr. Obama and his activist government. Empowered in the House, it forced an I.M.F.-like budget austerity on the federal government and blocked any new economic stimulus and investment. As a candidate, Mr. Trump built his base among Tea Party Republicans and Evangelicals in order to carry forward the assault on government nationally and in the states. The Democrats watched in frustration as the government was presumed to be impotent to address wage stagnation, surging inequality, climate change, the slaughter from automatic weapons and the flood of dark money into politics.

But this dam has burst. With Mr. Trump’s ever-escalating assault on government, the proportion of Americans who say that government “should do more to solve problems and meet the needs of people” surged to the highest level in 20 years. Democratic candidates who understand this political moment will push for a government that changes the country’s course, as it did under Democratic presidents after the progressive victories of 2008 and 1964 and especially after the 1932 triumph of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.


Democratic voters today look at the chief executives of major corporations and they see the face of an era where greed was unchecked, where companies failed to invest in their workers and used their big donations and lobbyists to rig the political system against the middle and working classes. They are determined that government must do something not only about corruption and corporate excess, but also inequality, universal health care, the state of the working family, climate change, globalization, entrenched racial and gender disparities and more.

Any hopes for bipartisanship died when Mr. Trump seized the leadership of the Republican counterrevolution in 2016. He auditioned for the job as a “birther” who seemed viscerally committed to reversing the Obama legacy. Mr. Obama’s election and re-election represented the triumph of an America that was ever more racially and culturally diverse, younger, more secular, more often unmarried, with fewer traditional families and male breadwinners, more immigrants and more concentrated in the growing metropolitan areas.

As president, Mr. Trump did everything his Tea Party and evangelical base could hope for, from the attempted repeal of Obamacare to the Muslim ban, his championing of a border wall and the promotion of justices to the Supreme Court who could conceivably make abortion illegal again. Alongside this, his America First, populist trade policies cemented the addition of a large number of observant Catholics to his coalition.

And yet, his party is unraveling. A quarter of Republicans were moderates in 2018, and 30 percent defected to the Democrats or stayed home in the midterms. This year, the secular conservatives and moderates who are the least enthusiastic about Mr. Trump moved away from the party, leaving it dominated by evangelicals, the Tea Party and observant Catholics.

Many commentators on the state of the nation are not sure they can trust a majority of American voters on race — understandably so. They watched how important race and racism were to the Tea Party revolt and the pullback from Mr. Obama. They watched Mr. Trump defy nearly all of the predictions in 2016, when white voters’ attitudes toward African-Americans and Hispanic immigrants played such a huge role in his upset victory.

In the run-up to the 2018 election, Mr. Trump continued to call for the building of a wall and even sent troops to the border to protect Americans from the caravans that were supposedly escorting Muslim terrorists. Republican ad makers created Willie-Horton-type spots that featured undocumented immigrants who murdered Americans.

But Mr. Trump playing the immigrant card as president has made Americans more favorable to immigration and immigrants — almost two-thirds now say that immigration benefits the country. His attack on immigrants has created a growing consciousness that we are a country of immigrants.

Like it or not in Mr. Trump’s America, the Republicans will now be the anti-immigrant party and the Democrats the pro-immigrant party, confidently associated with America’s multiculturalism.

Few of those who worry that Mr. Trump’s exploitation of race and immigration will carry the day in 2020 noticed that his party badly lost an off-year election that Mr. Trump centered on immigration. Democrats won the House popular vote by more than eight percentage points. Republicans gained Senate seats mainly in deep Red states where, generally speaking, Republicans ran well behind Mr. Trump’s performance two years earlier.

This year, Mr. Trump extended his war on immigrants and immigration. Yet the percentage of Americans who say that immigrants strengthen the country and are not a burden has risen from 54 percent after the 2018 election to 65 percent now. This view is held strongly by 52 percent. Only 26 percent agree with the president that immigrants are a burden because they are accused of taking jobs, housing and health care.

American voters will not disappoint us again. Mr. Trump’s frantic efforts on immigration will not work. Taken as a whole, the voters want to affirm who we are as a country — and to marginalize a Republican Party that stands outside the mainstream on so much of our recent history, on civil rights and immigration in particular.

Democrats are seeking leaders who understand how transformative this election ought to be for both the Republican and the Democratic parties. The Democrats want a powerful, activist government after years of gridlock and political impotence. More than three quarters of them believe that sharper regulation of business is necessary to protect the public, that government benefits for the poor don’t go far enough, that racial discrimination still blocks black advancement and that stricter environment laws are worth the cost. Two-thirds believe that corporations make too much profit. They want a very different America from the one Republicans have forged.

When you combine Mr. Trump pushing moderates out of the Republican Party and the changing attitudes his rhetoric and policies have brought about with the Democrats’ pro-government fervor, you have a recipe for transformation. Democrats should be looking not just to defeat Donald Trump and the Republican Party, but to get to work building a bold era of progressive reform.

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