One Certainty for 2020: Conservatives Will Lose

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A presidential election year has kicked off with both parties navigating new ideological crosscurrents. Two Bloomberg Opinion columnists, Ramesh Ponnuru and Michael R. Strain, met recently to discuss the state of the country’s politics.

Ramesh Ponnuru: The last time we conversed here, Mike, you were lamenting that the Republican Party had become more Trumpified than ever while the Democrats were lurching toward their own form of unproductive populism. Does the year’s end find you just as gloomy?

Michael R. Strain: I’m more gloomy, to be honest. Republicans in the House did not cover themselves in glory during the serious business of impeachment. Take Representative Debbie Lesko of Arizona, who went so far as to deny that President Donald Trump asked Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, despite the overwhelming evidence that he did exactly that. (Her office later clarified her statement.) The U.S. intelligence community does not believe that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election, but that has not stopped prominent GOP officials from suggesting the opposite.

On economics, the party has not moved any closer to embracing its traditional commitments to free trade and the importance of personal responsibility since we last conversed.

The Democrats, meanwhile, continue to insist that everything in economic life is awful. Animated by populism, Senator Elizabeth Warren wants divide the nation along class lines. For example, by soaking the top 0.06% with a wealth tax that is both bad policy and, as I’ve argued in my Bloomberg column, unethical. At the same time, the Democrats want to vastly expand the entitlement programs enjoyed by the upper middle class, including free college and child care.

It’s possible the Democrats will nominate Biden, so there is hope that at least one of the major party candidates in 2020 won’t be a populist.

How’s your mood?

RP: A little cheerier than yours! Warren has ended 2019 on the downslope. I continue to be more bullish than most political journalists about Biden’s chances of winning the nomination. And my sense is that Democrats, or at least Democratic politicians and strategists, have grown more appreciative of the unwisdom of outlawing private health insurance.

And while Republicans are all-too-loyal to Trump, their ideological Trumpification still seems to me to be an inch deep. The congressional party and the governors are, in the main, still free-traders. There are very few apologists for Russian President Vladimir Putin in their ranks.

I have a friendlier disposition toward populism than you, too — although I am not sure that “populism” is a useful term. I think Republican politicians and thinkers are starting to come to grips with serious problems that need addressing for the good of the country and their own coalition. I would emphasize “starting,” as I agree that the solutions self-described populists have put forward are mostly nonsense. But the Republicans of 2014 hadn’t really even acknowledged the problems in blue-collar America, and you have to start somewhere.

How’s that for a glass half-full?

MRS: I’d say it’s closer to glass one-quarter full. But I admire your optimism. I agree with you that Trumpification is an inch deep. But if the president wins re-election — which at this point seems likelier to me than not — support for it will deepen. And Trump would have won after having been impeached, which will deepen partisan division in the country.

I also agree that populism’s success at turning the GOP’s focus (or, at least, its rhetorical focus) on the problems of the working and middle classes is a positive development. Yet I have the familiar but serious concern that a particular manifestation of this focus has been to stoke hostility toward immigrants and racial animosity. If I have to choose between those features and a party too focused on its donor class, I’ll take the latter seven days a week.

How to be cheerful? I suppose 2019 could have been worse! Trade conflicts with China and Mexico could easily have been more aggressive and economically destructive, for example. But that is a low bar for holiday mirth.

RP: Trump’s re-election would probably, as you say, exacerbate some of the disturbing tendencies on the right. But I would not take it as a given. At the moment George W. Bush remains the only Republican president to be re-elected, and the only Republican presidential candidate to win a majority of the popular vote, since the Cold War ended. Yet “compassionate conservatism” has disappeared without a trace. Which is to say: Whether Trump’s second term would solidify his ideological legacy would depend on how it went.

I have, like you, written a lot in criticism of the president’s trade policies. But while these policies have inflicted some harm on the economy – and, because of that net harm to the economy overall, the acute harm they have inflicted on particular businesses (those subject to retaliation, for example) is unjustifiable – it hasn’t been severe. The economy remains pretty strong, and it is possible that continued wage growth, particularly among low-wage workers, will over time weaken a resentment-based politics. Come to think of it, I got that idea from one of your columns.

So like Bing Crosby, let’s finish the Christmas season by counting our blessings.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the editor of “The U.S. Labor Market: Questions and Challenges for Public Policy.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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