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Republicans Will Not Learn Much From This Election

Although at the present time it's kind of hard to believe, there is a faction of the Republican Party which looks towards the future and sees some very problematic demographic shifts awaiting it.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak to supporters at his primary election night event at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday, March 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak to supporters at his primary election night event at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday, March 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Although at the present time it's kind of hard to believe, there is a faction of the Republican Party which looks towards the future and sees some very problematic demographic shifts awaiting it. These forward-looking types tried to educate the rest of their party after they got shellacked in the 2012 presidential race, dissecting the festering corpse of Mitt Romney's campaign in an autopsy, and then issuing a post-mortem document pleading Republicans to begin instituting some basic changes. Mostly, these changes can be boiled down to: "Don't badmouth minorities so blatantly, because if you do so it is very hard to convince them to vote Republican." Also pointed out was the fact that young Americans are much more inclusive than the Republican Party as a whole, and losing an entire generation of voters is going to hurt for decades to come.

Of course, almost none of this advice was followed. A quick overview of the Republican presidential nomination race proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt. The big problem for Republicans now is that they certainly didn't learn their lesson the last time around, and it is almost impossible to believe that they will this time, either. The dynamics of the race pretty much guarantee that there will be a built-in excuse for the faithful to latch onto, should the Democrats win in November.

In the most recent losing presidential contests on the Republican side, staunch conservatives always fall back on the same excuse: "If only we had nominated a true conservative, we'd have won." The "establishment" candidate always seemed to win the nomination, which was the heart of the problem (for true conservatives). It wasn't that Mitt Romney couldn't reach out to independent voters, it was that he didn't do enough to excite the base. If only a real conservative had won the nomination, this thinking goes, they would have won in a landslide.

This time around, however, the built-in excuse will be: "Donald Trump upset the apple cart, so no real lessons can be drawn because it was such an abnormal election." If Trump hadn't run, and if someone like Ted Cruz had become the nominee, then it really would have put the "nominate a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and you'll win in November" theory to the test. If, in this alternate universe, the Democrat had beaten Cruz badly, then the establishment could have put the theory to rest once and for all. "See?" they'd say, "That was as bad as Barry Goldwater -- next time, you'll nominate a good establishment figure and we might win."

But Trump did run. And then he won. And won and won and won. He's now headed straight for the nomination, in fact. This guarantees that absolutely no lessons will be learned by Republicans in the aftermath. Play out every possible ending, and they all wind up at the same place: Republicans bickering about what happened, and putting all blame on Trump himself.

If Trump wins the nomination outright and then goes on to lose to Hillary Clinton, the response will be: "Trump was not a true conservative -- heck, he wasn't even a true Republican." If Trump is denied the nomination at the convention, the candidate who does get the nod will be seen as flawed by roughly half the party, and the built-in excuse if he loses will be: "Trump caused all this mess, next time around will be different." If there is a third-party candidate (either Trump, after being denied the nomination at the convention, or a third-party conservative who runs against Trump in the general election), then the excuse for losing will be obvious: "It was the third party's fault!" If Trump actually beats Hillary to win the general election, then there will be no post-mortem and the party will instead learn a very dangerous lesson indeed: demagoguery works.

In none of these scenarios is it possible to see the Republican Party doing serious self-examination afterwards. Donald Trump is his own faction. He's leading a cult of personality, not an ideological crusade. Because of this, no firm conclusions will even be possible afterwards. Oh, sure, the Republicans might overhaul their primary process to avoid this ever happening again (maybe they'll even take a page from the Democrats' playbook and introduce the superdelegate idea?), but this won't be the election to bury the "let's nominate a real conservative" idea. Far from it. In fact, things are so bizarre with Trump in the race that Ted Cruz is now the reasonable alternative for establishment Republicans. Having Ted Cruz be the "reasonable alternative" to anything or anyone just shows how bizarre things stand in the GOP right now. Absent Trump, Cruz would be the one party bigwigs were running ads against, desperately trying to stop him. Instead, he's now the last chance they have to stop Trump.

If Donald Trump becomes the GOP nominee and goes on to lose to Hillary Clinton, the post-mortem afterwards will be nothing more than the establishment Republicans loudly telling their own base voters: "We told you so!" Trump is so far out of the usual divide between the establishment and conservative wings of the party that no real lessons will be learned -- or even possible.

Democrats, to be fair, seem like they're going to postpone a similar reckoning in their party as well. If Bernie Sanders falls short of his goal, then the counter-argument from the left ("Let's nominate a true progressive and we'll surely win!") will continue into the next election cycle. If Bernie had won, Democrats would have had a chance to test the proposition this year, but after last night that doesn't seem very likely. This argument has been raised multiple times in recent years (by supporters of Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, and John Edwards), and its appeal appears to be growing stronger. Bernie might lose, but he'll lose by a lot smaller margin than Dean, Kucinich, and Edwards lost. This shows the growing dissatisfaction within Democratic ranks with their own establishment, and next time around the progressives might actually win the nomination (when Hillary Clinton is not on the ballot, perhaps in 2024 after her second term). So it's an argument that will take place in a future year among Democrats, as well.

Getting back to the Republicans, though, while it might not seem like it now, the party is fully capable of evolving when it sees its best interests threatened. Case in point this time around would be how they talk about gay marriage. Mostly, they don't. This is a monumental shift from the past two decades, when Republicans would eagerly attempt to use gay rights as a wedge issue among voters (which they were wildly successful at, it must be admitted). But since the Supreme Court has effectively ended the argument, Republicans this time around realized that the fight was lost and the more they brought it up the more damage they did to their chances of winning over young voters.

This evolution isn't complete, of course, and it wasn't prompted by a change in heart in any way. Republicans just realized it was a losing issue for them, and dropped it. No post-mortem from a previous election convinced them to do so, instead it was the Supreme Court. Still, it was a blow to those within the party who had been fighting gay rights for years.

Perhaps Trump losing will cause a similar movement within the party on issues such as immigration (perhaps after watching 80 percent or more of the Latino vote go to the Democrat). There may not be ideological shifts, but instead tactical ones. Whatever the issue, Republicans might realize "our position is losing us voters and any chance at the Oval Office," and start ignoring the issue rather than demagoguing it. Perhaps not. Either way, this is more of a tactical response than a fundamental lesson learned by the party at large. But this is really the only type of lesson it will even be possible for Republicans to learn. "Don't be like Trump," though, does not really show all that high a degree of self-examination. Maybe if Trump loses and then the party nominates Ted Cruz in 2020, real lessons can be drawn. But with Trump in the mix, any lesson learned (as with everything else about the Republican nominating process this year) will be entirely about Donald Trump -- and not about fixing the demographic problem the Republican Party still faces in the near future.

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