TIME WAS, when you thought of the Republican Party, a clear-cut set of principles came to mind. No, the rhetoric wasn’t always in synch with the reality, but you had some idea where the party’s conceptual compass pointed: toward freer markets, freer trade, smaller government, lower taxes, fiscal discipline, and traditional values.
But we have now arrived at this unsettled moment in politics. The GOP has emerged as America’s governing — or rather, trying-to-govern — party with its marquee principles in at least short-term inversion and quite possibly in longer-term transformation.
The December tax cut and the February spending deal, which have put the nation on a course to rack up $3 trillion to $4 trillion in new debt over a decade, render risible any claims of fiscal responsibility, revealing a decade of rhetoric about spending restraint and debt dangers as mere camouflage in the battle against Barack Obama. Tax cuts still matter, of course, but fiscal discipline and smaller government? They’ve flown the coop.
It goes without saying that a party with a protectionist president can’t credibly say it favors free trade. And for all its religiosity, the party’s moral-values wing has barely shrugged at President Trump’s reported affair with, and payoff to, an adult film actress. Presidential character apparently doesn’t matter as long as a president gets his judicial picks (hard) right.
Curious about how all that sits with longtime GOP stalwarts, I reached out to two people who are each the “Mr. Republican” of their states, former New Hampshire attorney general Tom Rath, a past Republican National Committeeman and a Granite State mainstay of many a presidential campaign, and Massachusetts’ longtime Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman, who served as political director for President George H.W. Bush.
Rath sees his party through a glass starkly.
“There are people I talk to every day who are shaking their heads,” Rath said. “The party has gone in a very different direction from one that is recognized by longtime Republicans.”
Not so Kaufman. “I believe we are the party of civil rights, the party of smaller government, with smaller deficits, and the party of a strong defense,” he said.
Let’s give Kaufman (and Rath, who also makes it) the strong-on-defense argument. But no matter its distant history, it’s hard to see how a party whose president traffics in racial resentments that are a dog whistle to the alt-right can be viewed as the champion of civil rights. Does Kaufman think Trump has done a good job of rejecting those forces?
“No, of course not,” he said. But “our party has, yes.” And yet, later in our conversation, Kaufman himself conceded that the GOP’s “single biggest problem is that we are perceived to be the party of intolerance.”
Further, can a party returning us to trillion-dollar annual deficits credibly claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility? “How can you, with this budget?” asked Rath, referencing last week’s congressional spending deal.
“I don’t like the fact that the debt is growing,” said Kaufman. “That has been a problem for way too long for both parties.” Except that Bill Clinton presided over the last three budget surpluses. And Obama’s big increase in the national debt came in considerable part because the Great Recession sheared away millions of jobs and badly depressed revenues. The GOP debt acceleration, contrariwise, is taking place during a strong economy.
Kaufman, who sees it all as degrees of gray, seems OK with the change.
“All parties evolve and change as time passes and different issues come up,” he said.
Rath, by contrast, clearly rues the GOP’s metamorphosis. Is he discouraged about his party?
“Well, I’ve been happier,” he said. “But I am enough of a fossil to believe that there will be another chapter or two here.”Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.