The Washington Post called the end of Marco Rubio’s campaign the “last gasp of the Republican reboot,” which the paper carefully described as a years-long effort by think-tankers and operatives to “repackage the Republican Party’s traditional ideas for a fast-changing country.”
“Reboot” was the right term for this initiative, in that a computer usually does the same things after a reboot that it was doing before you turned it off.
The theory of Rubio’s candidacy was that Republicans could appeal to a broader swath of the electorate with a young, handsome, Hispanic candidate who favoured a militaristic foreign policy, cuts to entitlement programs and a capital gains tax rate of zero. This was a flattering idea to professional Republicans who live in Washington, DC, and big GOP donors who live in New York, because both groups tend to favour party orthodoxy on economic and foreign policy, be somewhat embarrassed about the party’s poor relations with non-white voters, be favourably inclined toward immigration, and lack the desire to engage with divisive “culture war” issues.
Rubio was essentially the human embodiment of the Republican National Committee’s 2013 “autopsy report,” which urged the party to appeal more to younger and diverse voters, but did not interrogate the party’s policy offerings — except to urge support for comprehensive-immigration reform, an idea that actual Republican voters have not taken kindly to. Rubio, naturally, cosponsored the bipartisan immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013, but did not become law.
Unfortunately, Republican bigwigs failed to run the “reboot” plan by enough actual Republican voters, who were not clamoring for an increase in legal immigration levels, and who — we have now discovered — could be quite eager to support a candidate who overtly indulges both their racial grievances and their desire to collect unreduced Social Security benefits when they retire, and who departs from Republican support for free-trade agreements that many see as suppressing their wages and driving up unemployment.
Rubio sprinted away from his past support for comprehensive-immigration reform, perhaps not quickly enough. But his efforts to put a middle class-friendly skin on the same old Republican economic policies fell flat. His biggest modification to traditional GOP economics, a massively increased child-tax credit that would especially help lower middle- and middle-income families, did not punch through with voters — perhaps because it was surrounded by so many tax cuts for the rich (including that zero capital-gains tax rate) that his tax plan came to look just like any other big-ticket Republican tax cut plan.
The Republican masses have spoken, and they have said Trumpism speaks more directly to their concerns than Rubio’s allegedly reformist approach to the economy. They spoke particularly clearly Tuesday night in Florida, delivering a decisive win to Trump and forcing their home-state senator out of the race.
Alas, Trumpism, whose central plank is “I’ll make us so rich,” is stupid. Yet it was still good enough to beat Rubio! So maybe Republicans should consider the possibility that what they are offering — a repeat of the approach of the George W. Bush presidency, which failed to grow the economy and got us into two major wars, one of which was a complete disaster — is even stupider than Trumpism.
To win next time, establishment Republicans don’t need to copy Trump, but they do need to change their ideas so they can appeal to the voters he is winning. If trade wars aren’t the right way to improve middle class economic fortunes, what is the right way?
Satisfactorily answering that question will be the key to taking the party back. It’s not even necessary for the person with the answer to be young or handsome.
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