Last weekend, I reflected on what the Democratic Party should expect from politics after Covid – the hope of a resurgence in popularity for Joe Biden under normalized conditions, the danger that the party leftists are losing ground in several different demographic groups. Now, after a thank-you interlude, let’s take a look at what post-Covid politics on the Republican side might look like.
Republicans have a lot to be thankful for. In the years since George W. Bush, their party staggered without ruling ideology, veering from one fantasy style of politics to another, and twice named a ridiculously unfit reality TV star to the presidency. Yet through it all the party has never collapsed, has never fallen more than a distance from power, and has almost always retained some ability to block Democrats, which is the one thing that his constituents can get along.
It seems unlikely that this pattern will be broken even if Biden’s poll numbers rebound between 2022 and 2023. In this scenario, Republicans are likely to narrowly recapture the House of Representatives, returning to the position they occupied immediately after the election. last November – as a minority coalition, but a big one rather than a rump, which thanks to its structural advantages can still hope to hold at least part of Congress and make a few lucky forays into the White House.
But in a way, this advantage is also the main Republican weakness, and the party’s chance to avoid deep punishment for all of its follies is why these follies are likely to continue. The Democratic Party’s problems – the danger of its progressive shift costing it conservative-leaning minority votes, even as anti-Trump suburban voters might return to the GOP – create an opportunity for Republicans to win real popular majorities at the level. national, Bush-wide in 2004 if not quite Ronald Reagan. But the fact that they don’t need to be a majority coalition to wield some power means they’re more likely to choose badly and stay pretty much where they are.
The alternative, the party’s best post-Covid scenario, was seen in Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia campaign, which essentially mixed elements of Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 with Mitt Romney in 2012, while shedding baggage that prevented the two men from winning. popular majorities. Youngkin has a Romney-style character – the corporate suit and the brilliant family man – but where the Bain Capital man found himself captive to the party dogma of taxes and tariff cuts, the Former Carlyle group leader has pledged higher education spending and tax cuts that benefit the lower middle class, playing against corporate-Republican and supply-side stereotypes.
Meanwhile, Youngkin imitated Trump not only in his relatively populist promises, but also in its willingness to choose cultural fights – in this case, over critical race theory in schools – that other moderate Republicans might avoid. But then, in many other ways, he was anti-Trump: decent rather than brutal, reasonable rather than paranoid, keeping the plot at bay, reassuring rather than apocalyptic.
So that’s all the GOP needs nationally to fully exploit its post-Covid opportunities – a more populist economic agenda, a willingness to lead the fight to the progressive left (but with a smile) and the end. of the Trumpian plot.
But do enough party actors really want this combination? At the elite level, there are a handful of politicians and candidates who continue to grope for a more populist agenda and a group of nationalist intellectuals who think they are about to impose one on the party. But there is always a larger group of lawmakers, policy makers and donors who are very comfortable having no agenda, or fall back on the familiarity of tax cuts in the upper bracket and alleged budget cuts as soon as they return to power.
Among party voters, activists and media figures, there remains a clear appetite not for Youngkin-style ownership of parts of Trumpism, but for Donald Trump in his entirety – fueled by the plausible belief that populists and social conservatives cannot fully trust more corporate Republicans, the implausible belief that Trump’s wickedness helped him more than it hurt him, the false belief that he actually won the election of 2020, as well as America’s very desire in 2021 for politics to be high-stakes TV entertainment rather than boring attempts to tinker with ruling majorities.
And here’s the thing: Between the weaknesses of the Democratic Party, Biden’s age and the lack of impression of his possible successors, Republicans could very easily be competitive in 2024 while renaming Trump and campaigning on a purely negative agenda. .
Of course, they cannot be expected to govern effectively this way, and they would be wasting a potentially golden opportunity. But in the end the race would be close, there would be exciting possibilities of a constitutional crisis overnight, and if the Democrats stepped down, well, their majorities would be slim and 2026 would be just around the corner.
And if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past 15 years, it’s that it’s impossible for Republicans to resist the chance to enjoy a little power without any real accountability.