The Republican Party has an outreach problem. This statement is both true and frequently repeated in the age of President Trump, most recently after women, minorities, and young people voted for Democrats in large numbers in Virginia, New Jersey, and a number of local elections.
But if you look closer, Republicans have an even more pressing "inreach" problem: Its leadership and governing class have little credibility with the base. They have failed to accomplish much that rank-and-file GOP voters recognized as important for over a decade and now many of those voters are behaving increasingly reckless in an attempt to register their protest.
It wasn’t long ago that Republican primary voters faithfully followed the dreaded party establishment’s lead. Some conservatives would flirt with a Herman Cain or a Michele Bachmann, the former Minnesota congresswoman. Eventually, however, they would take their cues from the top, nominating George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney as they were politely told.
As late as the second Bush presidency, Republicans as liberal as former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee could win primaries against well-qualified conservative primary challengers. Today, a Specter or a Chafee would probably lose to a rodeo clown.
The dawn of the Tea Party looked like it might be the beginning of a more discriminating Republican primary electorate. Candidates would be judged by their policies and principles, not their length of service or the “R” next to their names on the ballot.
Nor would these candidates all be carbon copies of one another, despite their fiscally and socially conservative common ground. You could find libertarian skeptics of foreign military adventurism like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, articulate neoconservative-leaning Republicans like Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida or Ben Sasse of Nebraska, studious sticklers for the Constitution like Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, rabble-rousers of the Right like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Faster than you could say “Christine O’Donnell,” it became clear that this movement was susceptible to quixotic political crusades and vulnerable to grifters. And while conventional Republicans winning their primaries remained the norm, what started out as an effort to make the party more discriminating began to resemble an indiscriminate anger.
It's not clear that even the handiwork of Beltway conservative policy entrepreneurs addressed the concerns of the grassroots; it certainly did not excite them. Conservative elites were more dedicate to free markets than the people they tried to represent and arguably less concerned about the downsides of globalism and multiculturalism.
When the Republican primary electorate nominates a flawed candidate like Roy Moore, which party leader can persuade them they have made a mistake? If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Moore to drop his Alabama Senate campaign without the “if these allegations are true” caveat, would it hurt the Ten Commandments judge’s chances or actually rally the base behind him?
The outreach and inreach problems are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are connected. In order to achieve high turnout from Trump voters in rural and southwestern Virginia, Ed Gillespie — for most of his career a safe establishment Republican — had to overcompensate in his ads, speaking populism the way baby boomers might use millennial slang. In the process, he turned off the people who had supported him in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. as recently as the 2014 Senate race.
Trump has made the GOP’s outreach problems worse, with rhetoric (and in some cases, actions) that have turned off demographic groups Republicans were already struggling to win over. If Tuesday’s elections are any indication, Democrats could succeed in 2018 where they failed in 2016: replacing affection for former President Barack Obama with antipathy toward Trump as a motivator to turn out in huge numbers.
Yet Trump is more than anything a symptom of the party’s inreach problems. He may not have had the most pristine conservative platform or record, but he channeled the angers and anxieties of the average talk radio and Fox News listener better than anyone else. Even if he fails to repeal Obamacare or reform the tax code, he at least hits the right emotional buttons.
The rise of Republican identity politics predates Trump. In fact, it metastasized under the leadership of figures who resist that kind of politics today. Virginia first started turning blue and West Virginia turned red under George W. Bush, not Trump. Sean Hannity cheered Bush as much as Trump.
That ought to tell you something about the feasibility of proposals to repeal and replace the Republican base. It is easy to invoke Bertolt Brecht and suggest the government should dissolve the people and elect another. It is harder to exercise leadership, but it is what the party of Lincoln and Reagan sorely needs.