This year is very different. The Republican Party didn’t even release a policy platform for its convention. In its place, it put out a bizarre and creepy statement of fealty to President Donald Trump. The political leadership of the GOP is increasingly uninterested in policy, viewing itself as fighting a broader war to "save Western civilization" — a major theme of their convention’s first night — from the Democrats. Ramesh, what does this mean for the future of a party built in part on a movement of ideas?
Ramesh Ponnuru: Throughout his career, Newt Gingrich talked a lot about saving Western civilization, too. But he always connected that grandiloquent ambition, however tenuously, to a concrete agenda that he thought could unite Republicans and the public at large.
That’s the work Republicans are skipping.
They don’t have an agenda because they don’t know what they want.
Trump destroyed the old Republican consensus but didn’t replace it with anything equally developed. Republican politicians, meanwhile, have figured out that they can win elections without doing much to explain how they would wield power. Trump has benefited from and contributed to this post-policy orientation of Republicans, but it’s a phenomenon that goes well beyond him.
Strain: Trump blew up some elements of the GOP policy consensus, but far from all of it. He won in 2016 without having a developed policy platform, but when he took office, key elements of the party’s longstanding agenda asserted themselves.
The 2017 tax cuts and the administration’s deregulatory measures both.
Ponnuru: Trump has a public-policy record, to be sure, and there are policy issues that remain important to many Republican voters.
Trump has been careful to stay on the right side of Republicans on abortion and gun rights, for example. Convention speakers are talking about policy, too, roughly as much as the Democrats did last week.
It’s because of his stances on the issues, and the Democrats’ opposing ones, that Trump retains the political support of most of those Republicans who don’t consider him honest and trustworthy (about a quarter of them).
But that still leaves a lot of blank space where a Republican agenda should be.
You speak of Trump’s vision for immigration. What is it? Is it that we should have record levels of legal immigration, as he has sometimes said? Or that we should have less legal immigration, as he has also sometimes said?
Republicans are not of one mind on this question, and neither is Trump.
I don’t think Republicans are going to work out where they stand on such issues as long as he is president; I also don’t think it’s going to be easy for them to figure it out afterward.
Strain: Republicans were divided on immigration long before Trump took office.
They have been divided plenty of times on plenty of things during the first terms of their party’s presidents, including much of George W. Bush’s domestic policy agenda: for example, Bush’s first-term decision to expand the federal role in K-12 education.
Judging by the convention, you’re right that the GOP won’t work out internal policy disagreements while Trump is president. But that tells you more about Trump and the source of his appeal than it does about the party.
Speaking of the convention, how do you think it is going?
In my view, the first night went a lot further toward helping the president reclaim wavering suburban Republicans than I had expected it would.
Ponnuru: The Republicans are doing a reasonably competent job of getting their message out amid the novelty of a virtual convention. But they are directing that message to too small a slice of the public. Take the McCloskeys’ speech last night. Support for gun rights and fear of riots can be part of a message with wide appeal. People who think Marxism is a serious threat to the U.S., though, are already with Trump.
And the message itself is muddled.
The country is falling apart and has to be saved by Trump, who is also presiding over an American renaissance.
The Republican Party is spending four nights advertising an identity crisis.
Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion colmunist.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." Read Ramesh Ponnuru's Reports — More Here.
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