The many changes to the political landscape since 2016 have provided a number of crucial lessons for all of America’s current and would-be political candidates.
But it’s not so clear any one of them has learned a darn thing.
That includes Republicans, many of whom don’t seem to be all that more aware of the new political realities than even the most Trump-deluded and obsessed Democrats.
But while it’s one thing for liberals and Trump-haters to continue to reject the results and lessons of the last four years, it’s unconscionable for conservatives and Republicans to remain just as clueless.
The Trump Doctrine
Not all the new realities facing the GOP are the result of the Donald Trump’s presidency and his policies. But three of the most important changes indeed are.
Topping that list is the push Trump made to get the Republican Party away from the mindless globalism and open border policies that not only jeopardized American economics and values, but also made the GOP barely discernible from most elected Democrats.
By insisting on getting tougher with China and even some of our European trading partners, President Trump not only proved those policies could strengthen the economy, but he won back millions of blue collar voters back to the Republican rolls. The days of the GOP being hopelessly labeled as the party of Wall Street or corporate America are over; an especially fortuitous result since both Wall Street and most of corporate America has been donating just as much to Democrats as Republicans over the last 30 years or so.
Similarly, President Trump focused his 2016 campaign and many of his White House policies on protecting American workers from the wage pressures brought on by illegal immigration and even some legal immigration policies that were not helpful to the economy. Despite years of even Republicans swallowing the line that all immigration, legal or not, is good for the economy, the president has forced many Americans to reconsider those conclusions to the point that even some top economists have begun to realize their past mistakes. America can still be one of the most welcoming countries to immigrants in the world, if not the most, but it doesn’t have to continue the ruinous family-based, non-skill-centered immigration policies of the past.
Because of those two changes in trade and immigration policy, suddenly states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are in play again for presidential and statewide Republican candidates. Remembering the voters with bold policies and more than just slogans or anti-liberal messaging is the gift Mr. Trump has bestowed on the GOP for the next generation and beyond.
The third major policy change President Trump has made for America and the Republican Party won’t be as easy to measure in any individual state’s voting patterns. But if GOP candidates learn from and expand on it, it should make Republicans much more attractive to voters across all demographics.
That policy change has been this White House’s much more pragmatic, but still appropriately aggressive foreign policy. Instead of the wars in the region brought to us by the previous two GOP administrations, President Trump has proved American toughness in a more peaceful manner by getting the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, showing no fear in moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and pushing our NATO allies to pay their fair share for defense.
In cases where deadly force was needed, the Trump team has kept those engagements singularly focused and without any need for more boots on the ground. Those engagements include major successes like the taking out of Iran’s top terrorist general Qasem Solemeini and the leader of ISIS leader and founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The doomsayers who predicted each of those targeted assassinations would lead to a major Middle East war all turned out to be wrong, proving America needn’t appear to be weak just to avoid empty threats.
Meanwhile, just the opposite of war continues to break out in the region. Israel’s partnership with Saudi Arabia grows by the day, and a major peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel was announced just this month. None of these developments would have been possible without the unique level of support the Trump administration has shown for Israel, and the White House’s resolute stand against Iran.
Other Republicans need to learn from this that wider wars aren’t the answer even in the often war-torn Middle East. The last four years have shown that at the very least, the war in Iraq during President George W. Bush’s administration might not have been at all necessary, just as then-candidate Donald Trump made such a big impact by saying so all during the 2016 election. The administration’s planned draw-down of our troops in Afghanistan is providing the same lesson.
The lives and money saved by not fighting endless wars always provides a boost in the polls. But for a generation of American men and women who were asked to sacrifice so much in Iraq and Afghanistan without much recognition from the nation’s elites, this is something that could keep them voting GOP for the rest of their lives.
Finally, there is that Trump personality. For millions of Americans, it is an immediate turnoff. Even lots of his own loyal voters insist they’re only supporting his policies and not his persona. The argument that “I don’t like Trump personally, but he’s getting the job done,” is one you hear at least privately in a lot of American homes.
But here’s the funny thing about all of that. While many aspects of Trump’s personality are indeed unhelpful in the polls, it sure seems like only a pugnacious man like Trump could have the wherewithal to deliver so many controversial policies that drove so many Americans crazy but still worked out in the end.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to present yourself as a strong and unapologetic candidate without being quite so combative as Donald Trump. But he has freed up an entire new generation of Republicans to be more aggressive, but not seem too aggressive compared to him. The Trump bar for pugnacity is so high, even sharp and rapid Republican responders on social media like former Ambassador Richard Grenell seem very dignified by comparison.
But Trump has taught us that not responding strongly to all the outrageous accusations and lies made by the left is a mistake. The days are over where anyone can pretend that you can take the high road against political opponents who call Republicans “Nazis” on a daily basis.
Politics is a dirty game, and it always has been. With all due respect to Republicans like Mitt Romney, John Kasich, and Ben Sasse, who seem to think cultivating their distinguished, nice guy images are the key to political success, they’re just wrong. In fact, you can bet plenty of Democrats are calling Romney, Kasich, and Sasse some pretty nasty names on a daily basis too.
Going Beyond Trump
But as much as the most loyal MAGA voters and the most crazed Trump-haters may think so, not all of the most important lessons of the last few years are all about Donald Trump. There are some areas where the president has only dipped his toes in the right waters, and today’s younger Republicans need to dive right in.
The best example of that comes from the situation in all of those Democrat-controlled and decaying urban areas across the country. And the best example of how to respond to it reemerged this month with one of the most impressive viral videos we’ve seen this election season so far.
It came from Republican U.S. House candidate Kimberly Klacik, who is running to fill the late Rep. Elijah Cummings seat in the Baltimore area. What’s so impressive and unique about the ad isn’t the fact that we’re seeing a black female Republican, but the fact that we’re seeing her walking through the decaying streets of Baltimore as she makes her points about the failed Democrat rule in the city.
She’s not just talking about it, she’s there. To win elections in an age of social media and all the Internet shortcuts, showing up and literally walking the walk stands out more than ever.
White Republicans can succeed with this strategy as well. And we know that because it’s worked before, and was taught to us by a person who put a philosophy into action.
I’m talking about the late Congressman and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, whose true concern for Americans trapped in failing city neighborhoods defined his political career for 30 years.
Kemp earned his “bleeding heart conservative” nickname by actually making a habit of personally visiting rough urban areas and interacting with the people there. His pre-politics career as a star NFL quarterback surely made doing that a lot easier for him, but so did his mantra of “don’t fear the voters” that he often repeated to his Republican colleagues.
More importantly, Kemp backed it all up with a policy that was based on the key understanding that government wasn’t the solution to economically-challenged inner cities. Then, he made things better with his empowerment zone policy that mixed tax breaks with relaxed regulations to encourage new construction and business activity in those areas.
The Trump administration took a cue from Kemp with its Opportunity Zone tax rules, but the White House has had little success publicizing just how much of an impact that policy has already enjoyed. This is a very simple message the GOP has the chance to get through to the public today more than ever before.
How does this affect suburban candidates and their voters? The simplest answer is that stronger and more self-sufficient cities will obviously provide economic benefits to the rest of the country. But it’s also true that when cities start to work better, policies they implement to make it so become more attractive to non-urban areas as well. Charter schools, less regulation, smarter road and grid planning are all needed in rural and suburban American too.
The bottom line is that a Republican Party that drones on about taxes 50 percent of the time and spends the other half of the day criticizing Democrats has no future. It’s been thankfully brushed away by a president who dismantled a feckless GOP establishment.
Now is the time for the rest of the party to pursue Trump’s policy guidance along with a new kind of messaging that can win elections and make the country greater at the same time.