Trump Loss Could Mean Long-Term Gains for Conservatives

President Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Fayetteville, N.C., November 2, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

There’s a good chance that the short-term pain of a Trump loss would mean sustainable gains for conservatives down the road.

Editor’s Note: If you would like to read more pros and cons on voting for President Trump, further essays on the subject, each from a different perspective, can be found here, here, here, here, here and here. These articles and the one below reflect the views of the individual authors, not of the National Review editorial board as a whole.

Jimmy Carter doesn’t get enough credit from conservatives. If he had lost to Gerald Ford in 1976, things would’ve turned out much differently.

President Ford represented the Republican Party’s centrist, managerial, non-ideological wing, which had been dominant since the days of Eisenhower. He was challenged in the 1976 primaries by Governor Ronald Reagan of California, the ex-Hollywood actor and poster boy of the conservative movement. Far from being non-ideological, Reagan had become convinced at that point in his life that “ideas have consequences,” which was the title of one of his favorite books. He wanted to win the argument and the election and the Cold War, too.

Reagan lost the primary and Ford lost the election, which turned out to be a good thing. If Ford had won, the centrists would have stayed in the party’s driver’s seat. Democrats probably would have taken back the White House in 1980, and the Cold War might not have been won.

Ford’s loss handed the reins of the GOP over to Reagan and the conservatives. Carter’s personal shortcomings and the nation’s ill economic health cast a pall over his administration and paved the way for two Reagan landslides.

Republicans in 1976 couldn’t have known it would turn out that way, of course, but lessons are only learned in hindsight. Ford’s 1976 defeat and Reagan’s 1980 victory appear, at this late date, to have been part of a zero-sum equation for Republicans. They needed the Ford loss and the Carter presidency to set the stage for the Reagan revolution.

It’s impossible to say for certain, but present indicators suggest that the same zero-sum equation will apply to the GOP in 2020 and 2024.

There are, to be sure, a vast number of differences between this election and that of the 1976, but the same principle — that a loss can sometimes be salutary for a political party — applies well to both. The Republican Party is not going to hold sway over the executive branch forever; Democrats will eventually win it back. Looking at the two candidates this year and at the trajectory of the two parties, a loss for Donald Trump tomorrow would probably serve the long-term interests of conservatives more than any defeat since Gerald Ford’s.

This 2020/1976 analogy does break down at several points. In the 1970s, for instance, the parties were a lot less sorted on the issue of abortion. There were more pro-life Democrats and more pro-abortion-rights Republicans. Carter himself was a cipher on the issue, taking pains to appear pro-life or pro-choice depending on his audience. None of the same uncertainty surrounds the Democratic nominee in 2020. Joe Biden is a dyed-in-the-saline-solution abortion zealot along with the rest of his party. President Trump, by way of contrast, has an impressive record on the issue of life. This alone is enough for many conservatives to cast their vote for him. Aren’t they right to do so?

Well, that depends on whether they want to play the short game or the long game. Success in democratic politics is not, in the final analysis, a matter of mobilizing the party base to win elections. It’s a matter of forcing the other party to move in your direction and to embrace your positions by making them as popular as possible. For conservatives, success means shifting the center of political gravity in the United States to the right. Reagan’s sustained electoral success is a good example of how this happens. It forced the Democrats to nominate Bill Clinton — a man who was on the right wing of the Democratic Party even in his own day — in order to take back the White House. The entire political debate in the country took place further to the right in 1992 than it had when Reagan was elected in 1980.

This principle holds true for abortion as well. If lasting, meaningful gains are to be made for the pro-life movement in America, that movement must eventually be a bipartisan one. Only when a significant plurality of Democrats are votaries of pro-life politics will the protection of unborn life be consolidated. The chief end of the American pro-life movement in our time should be to win over the hearts and minds of the Democratic Party and of left-wing Americans more generally. Many conservatives will be inclined to throw their hands up here and complain that Democrats are immovable on this issue, which is fine. But if the persuasion of Democrats is ruled out by pro-lifers, then conservatives need to get used to life in an abortion-friendly country, because huge, sweeping changes never happen without emphatic majoritarian consensus. Unless pro-lifers are willing to take up arms in order to enforce this consensus (not advisable), constructing it by way of persuasion is the only avenue available.

This question, then, has to be asked: Is Donald Trump the kind of ambassador for the pro-life movement who can shift the abortion debate’s center of gravity to the right? Is his popularity of such magnitude that he lends clout and winsomeness to the pro-life cause merely by associating himself with it? Do so many persuadable Americans personally admire him, regardless of his policies, that they’ll listen to pro-life arguments simply because he endorses them?

As Mrs Thatcher said, “No. No. No.”

That Donald Trump is one of the most unpopular presidents in American history goes without saying. His personal brand is so tainted that every cause he associates himself with is morally compromised by his endorsement. Some will dismiss this observation as an elite, bourgeois, and purely cosmetic concern. It isn’t. The personal reputation and likeability of any given president have huge effects on policy outcomes. Think of Obamacare. It was a widely and deeply unpopular law. The president who gave his name to it had no right to be reelected by any sound measure of political logic. But Barack Obama’s personal popularity in the country so outstripped the popularity of his signature initiative that he was able to win the election in 2012 in spite of his policies. Because voters liked him, we got the Iran nuclear deal and a whole host of other sordid policy outcomes. It sounds almost stupidly tautological to say this, but in a democratic society, personal popularity has consequences.

Judged on his administration’s policies, Donald Trump should win this election. He’s a fairly run-of-the-mill Republican president who has cut people’s taxes, appointed good judges, and kept us out of any new wars. As my colleague Kevin Williamson has pointed out, his only failures have come in the few areas he’s chosen not to delegate to the brain trust of “Conservatism, Inc.”

If you put his personal antics and character aside, Trump’s record holds up well when set against Biden’s agenda, even in spite of the pandemic. A decent person running on the same record could win back the suburbs and win this election handily. Instead, the administration’s accomplishments have been tainted in the eyes of the suburban electorate simply by having Donald Trump’s name attached to them. Another four years of his presidency would result in even more conservative policy wins being chained to his brand by savvy progressive political operators. This would only make good policies easier to run against for Democrats in 2024 and beyond. Everything that thoughtful and conscientious conservatives believe would be damned as “the politics of Donald Trump” in attack ads. Conversely, a loss for the president tomorrow would liberate the policy aims and accomplishments of Republican representatives, senators, and executive agents from the shackles of Trump’s personality. We would be spared another four years of watching him snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by underselling Republican accomplishments to the public.

Trump’s political missteps during the closing weeks of this election are an example of how his personal conduct jeopardizes conservative policy victories. Polls have consistently shown that, even during the lockdowns, the one issue on which voters trust Trump more than Biden is the economy. But instead of banging on about his economic record relentlessly, which might have done him a lot of good, the president has chosen to spend the final sprint to the finish line talking about Hunter Biden’s laptop.

No doubt, many will think all of these prognostications to be too clever by half. Policy wins in the bank are policy wins in the bank, no matter who signs them into law. But it’s nevertheless the case that another four years of Trump front and center in American life would virtually guarantee a Democratic win in 2024. It’s hard to win a third consecutive presidential election for either party under the best of circumstances, but it’ll be impossible if the president continues to suck every conservative policy win into the vortex of his own personality. Republicans have to pick: It’s either a Trump win tomorrow, or a chance at winning with a post-Trump nominee in 2024.

A Biden loss tomorrow could also bring about some very undesirable developments in the Democratic Party. Though this is admittedly not saying much, Biden was the most moderate candidate who ran for the party’s 2020 nomination. If he loses, progressives will rush to argue that two successive “corporatist” nominees doomed the party to defeat at the hands of the most beatable opponent imaginable. Their solution will be to drag Democrats even further left. Just like the Reagan conservatives in ’76, they’ll be able to use the failure of the centrist establishment as a persuasive pretext to win control over the party. A Biden victory would validate the Democratic primary electorate’s decision to pass on Bernie Sanders and all he represents.

Some excitable conservatives will want to protest that Biden himself is a socialist. By the time 2024 comes around, they argue, the far-left horses will already have left the stables. This is not true: Joe Biden is a garden-variety technocratic progressive. His agenda is as feeble, cumbersome, and atrophied as he is. There’s no need to pretend that it checks off every item on Che Guevara’s wish list. It’s just as bad as you’d expect a run-of-the-mill Democratic nominee’s platform to be, no more and no less. The only eye-poppingly radical proposal Biden has entertained is packing the Supreme Court, but he’s recently clarified that he intends to form a “commission” to “research” ways in which the Court might be “depoliticized,” which in Washington-speak means Court-packing is never going to happen.

The prospect of a Biden victory also holds forth the tantalizing possibility of a conflagration between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party. From Day One of his presidency, Biden will be the rope in a tug of war between the radical left and his moderate majority-makers on the Hill. He won’t have the personal energy or charisma to unite the two warring factions under the banner of his leadership. By the time the 2024 election comes around, internal divisions in the Democratic Party are likely to dwarf the internecine strife that took place between Carter and Kennedy during the 1980 election cycle. There’s a good chance Biden will be preparing to exit the stage after one term, leaving the party without a leader. The presidency would then be ripe for Republican picking.

Of course, all such predictions are speculative, and four years is a lifetime in politics. But the election of ’76 should force Republican voters to reckon with the possibility that short-term pain tomorrow will mean sustainable gains down the road.

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