The Republican Party is heading towards its most important primary elections in a long time. The partys ideological confusion, its departure from mainstream beliefs on some social issues, and what we might call the Trumpian paradox pose major challenges for the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan in the era of wokeism and inflation at home and autocratic imperialism abroad.
There was a time when Republicans espoused a vision that made freedom the guiding principle on economics, social issues and foreign policy. Their leaders made major mistakes, however. For instance, they rejected the civil rights ethos rather than seeking to make it compatible with small government (former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) is an example) and did not understand that overblown defense budgets, like Ronald Reagans, could render small government and therefore fiscal discipline impossible. But their ideals rested squarely on the principle of individual freedom, and so did the political instincts of their partys base.
That guiding principle was gradually lost, and Donald Trump became the incarnation of a new party, a hodgepodge of contradictory ideas (or slogans) that seeks to limit government in some areas and expand it in others, that defends free enterprise while undermining free trade, that wants to deregulate part of the economy while engaging in massive monetary and fiscal profligacy, that fights some of the rights most valued cultural wars while pulling the party away from free choice in other social areas.
There is also the issue of how much the political base has ceased to mirror the country at large. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, non-Hispanic whites without college degrees were a diminishing part of the GOP. The composition of the Republican Party reflected some of Americas social trends at the time. But that stopped in the early 1990s, and the GOP gradually divorced itself from the mainstream social fabric. Its base was disproportionately represented by non-Hispanic whites with little to no college education and the older generations. By 1992, 61 percent of registered Republican voters were over 50.
No wonder the party has become unelectable in some of the big coastal states (when George H. W. Bush won California in 1992, it was the fifth consecutive victory for the GOP in that state) and has become used to losing the popular vote. In the last 34 years, the Republicans have only won the popular vote twice in presidential elections.
The GOPs crusade against immigration and abortion has hurt it significantly among many social groups. A majority of Americans view immigrants favorably and believe a path to citizenship should be provided for undocumented aliens, though oppose giving them government aid. Only 37 percent believe abortion should be illegal in most cases.
And then there is the Trump paradox. Republican leaders intent on winning back the White House cannot get the nomination if they are perceived as Trumps enemies, but the party cannot win the presidential election if it is led by Trump or seen to represent the former president. That is why Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) has astutely avoided confronting him, much in the way that Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.) avoided picking fights with him when he was seeking his partys nomination. Youngkin won the gubernatorial election because he kept Trump at a distance.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) is right that the GOP needs a new generation of leaders. But thus far, neither she nor any other potential candidateincluding DeSantis, former secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, and othershave put forward a vision that would restore individual freedom to the center of the partys agenda and broaden the appeal of the message beyond the restricted political base. The next candidate must decisively fight the extremist cult that wokeism and the ideology of victimhood have become while winning back social groups that are currently the monopoly of the Democrats and marginalizing Trump.
Let us hope that in the next few months, the GOPs leaders begin to understand how urgently America needs them to shape up.