The BLOG: Campaign 2016

Why the GOP is teetering on the edge of dissolution

I’ve been thinking a lot this weekend about how a narcissistic charlatan like The Donald could emerge as the front runner for the presidential nomination of the Party of Lincoln. I see two closely related reasons.

First, the Obama Presidency has been so profoundly destructive to America’s position in the world, so disruptive of our cultural norms, and so dispiriting for believers in the democratic-capitalist version of the American Dream, that there is widespread frustration and desperation from the grass roots to the grass tops.

Second, and I think this is actually more fundamental, Republican leaders (with the partial exception of Paul Ryan) have lost the ability to articulate fluently and consistently a pro-growth message that explains in plain English the rationale for low taxes, smaller government, sound money, and a strong national defense. These were the pillars of the Reagan Revolution, which in important respects revived the principles on which Lincoln and others founded the Republican Party. We have lacked leaders and candidates who could explain why marginal tax rates matter, in layman’s terms. Or why faster growth is a better solution to inequality than the job destroying minimum wage. Or how poverty reduction is the greatest accomplishment of capitalism. Or why it is better to have a rising tide that lifts all boats than it is to redistribute wealth. How long has it been since we have had a Republican leader who could discuss, without embarrassment and with nuanced understanding, why we need a sound and stable dollar? Or one who could unashamedly and convincingly explain why we must reward risk taking and success, if we care about the long term prosperity of the middle class? The Tea Party’s grim focus on government austerity and debt reduction has carried the day. But parties with dismal messages do not win elections.

Or, put another way, where have you gone Jack Kemp?

The pro-growth message that Reagan and Kemp espoused, based on neo-classical economic principles infused with a populist Main Street rather than Wall Street ethos, resonates as well today as it ever did. But a generation of Republicans have either forgotten the message or grown too timid and defensive to articulate it. Marco Rubio could be the standard bearer who revives the message. Others could as well. But until Republicans get this right, there will be fertile fields for demagogues like Trump and even socialists like Bernie. A generation has grown up without learning the Reagan gospel. It will take time to recover it from the mists of time. We need to start now.

Robert K. Kelner

Robert K. Kelner

Robert K. Kelner is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own and not those of his law firm. Follow him on Twitter @RobKelner.