KOLB: Donald Trump’s Real Legacy

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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This point may appear counterintuitive, but Donald Trump’s overall legacy will leave Republicans far better-positioned for the foreseeable future than Biden Democrats.

Biden captured the White House, but his party (thus far) has failed to flip the GOP-led Senate and suffered significant House losses. The widely expected blue wave was a blue bust.

Republican candidates who also won down-ballot state and local contests heralded a significant repudiation of the progressive left’s agenda of identity and redistributionist politics. Democrats must now thread the needle among competing and divergent factions in their own tent. Can Blue Dog Democrats reconcile with AOC’s Squad?

By contrast, even in defeat, Trump has solidified his large GOP middle class base (somebody once called these folks a “basket of deplorables”) and positioned Republicans (if they are smart) for continued inroads among White suburban women, African Americans, Asians and Hispanics. This effort won’t require a massive demographic shift. Just enough marginal gains among these groups mean that Republicans can expand their ranks significantly, especially in the 2022 midterm congressional elections and beyond.

Michael Horowitz, the Office of Management and Budget’s General Counsel during the first Reagan administration, believes that Trump has effectively achieved today what Barry Goldwater did for the GOP in 1964: paved the way for a new, coalition-building agenda that can produce future GOP majorities. While Goldwater’s 1964 blowout loss to Lyndon Johnson put Republicans on defense and cemented Democrat majorities in the House and Senate for years, Goldwater also set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 winning platform of lower taxes, less government and stronger defense that has characterized GOP policies for 40 years.

Trump’s presidency and policies have cleared the path for a new GOP agenda but without Goldwater’s political wipeout. Instead, in 2020 Republican candidates outperformed virtually all of the major poll projections. The Cook Political Report flagged 27 congressional seats as toss-ups. Republican candidates captured all 27.

There’s a message here: while Trump’s personality caused his own loss, his agenda and record of economic growth and opportunity, regulatory pragmatism, traditional values (reflected partially through his judicial appointments), pro-growth legal immigration, military preparedness, opposition to Chinese expansionism and a stunning new approach to Middle East peace appealed to a broad and expanding GOP base.

We’re at a critical juncture where careful efforts to maintain and expand this agenda will, given the mostly irreconcilable differences now confronting Democrat factions, enable Republicans to continue making inroads that can produce stable, long-term conservative majorities.

Most Americans prefer safe cities, not sanctuary cities. Defunding the police is a failed idea. Reparations will exacerbate, not reduce, racial tensions. Likewise, many black, Hispanic, and Asian voters now appreciate what an economic opportunity agenda can mean for their families, their communities and their nation.

When the choice is between achievement and opportunity versus more entitlements, unsuccessful income transfer programs and cumbersome bureaucracies, more Americans prefer an approach that links American values with American interests.

Whose ideas and approaches are more likely to resonate with America’s minority communities: Al Sharpton’s or those of pragmatic reformers like Shelby Steele, William Julius Wilson and Bob Woodson, Sr.? Sharpton promotes victimization; Steele, Wilson, and Woodson favor economic empowerment and opportunity approaches that actually transform individual lives and communities.

For too long, the left has caricatured conservatives as uncaring. The ideological and political fight was between a caring left and a mean-spirited right. Several GOP leaders tried to counter this caricature: George H. W. Bush had “kinder, gentler,” Jack Kemp championed “bleeding heart conservatism” and George W. Bush embraced “compassionate conservatism.”

Too often, however, GOP leaders bought into “half-a-loaf” compromises that abandoned conservative principles. Trump has now cleared the way for a focused, disciplined and muscular GOP agenda that builds on his own policy successes while also expanding that agenda to include affordable access to quality postsecondary education, successful inner-city schools and a vibrant human rights agenda at home and abroad that addresses sex-trafficking, labor slavery, prison rape, Internet and religious freedom, and zero tolerance for international dictators.

This new conservative agenda must also address the nation’s unsustainable fiscal and monetary policies that both political parties have made worse and that Trump ignored through his tax cuts and the emergency (but necessary) pandemic response.

Trump has set the stage and should now take his bows and relish his legacy, while others further define a constructive new GOP agenda focusing on measurable results, not just more government spending. The new GOP message is evolving. Coming next will be new leaders building on Trump’s legacy minus his baggage.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. For more on the GOP “caricature” issue, see M. Horowitz et al., www.caricaturechallenge.info