Why Trump Is Good for the GOP

Politico Magazine, 02.08.2015
Paul Goldman (ex presidente del Partido Democrata de Virginia) y Mark J. Rozell (decano de     George Mason University)
Republicans should be thanking the billionaire for sending them a most necessary message.

Donald Trump is giving the GOP a tax-free gift, paid for entirely with his own personal funds. His pro-free market rivals, along with GOP leaders, consider his capitalist wealth to be their collective curse. But instead of trying to kill the messenger, they should be thanking the Queens, New York, native for footing the bill to send them a most necessary message.

Since Black Friday killed its winning pre-Depression “prosperity” message, the Grand Old Party has failed to develop a new, compelling and sustainable economic platform. Likewise, since the fall of the Soviet Union neutralized their Cold-War era “peace” message, the Republicans have failed to develop a new, compelling and sustainable replacement creed. And without such mighty themes to unify an inherently factionalized national party, the GOP is asking for its fissures to be exploited.

Just look at the long list of opportunistic and wealthy presidential adventures to take advantage of the message vacuum in the post Cold-War era, from Ross Perot’s third-party challenge in 1992, Steve Forbes’ self-funded attempt to win the GOP nomination in 1996, and “The Donald’s” 2000 try at the Reform Party presidential nomination to Michael Bloomberg’s flirtation with a 2008 independent run and of course Trump’s posturing during the 2012 election cycle.

Trump2016.com is merely the latest quadrennial installment in this presidential election saga, complete as always with disdain from the “serious” candidates and the “mainstream” press. But rather than spurn the disruption, the GOP would do well to focus on what’s going wrong. It isn’t complicated.


From 1896 through 1928, Republicans employed a powerful prosperity message to win seven of nine presidential elections. The Democrats, in 1896, chose William Jennings Bryan, a vocal prairie populist from Nebraska, to lead the party into battle against Ohio’s Republican Gov. William McKinley. The 36 year-old Bryan, a former two-term congressman little known outside of the Great Plains, mesmerized delegates with a now legendary “Cross of Gold” speech attacking Midwestern and Eastern financial interests for manipulating the currency to hurt Southern agriculture and Western mining states. Bryan tried to build an Electoral College majority from these old economy states, blatantly gearing his entire campaign to an inflationary economic policy far more favorable to debt-plagued rural town framers than laborers in industrial state towns and cities fearing it would erode the purchasing power of their wages. This effectively tethered Democrats to rural America’s static past, leaving Republicans to champion the dynamic industrialization creating a new middle class.

As the Industrial Age grew to dominate the new economy, working families, including waves of new immigrants, increasingly identified with the Republican prosperity message. By the 1920s, the Democrats had lost three landslides to three different GOP candidates, a debacle unequalled in the modern two-party era. Only one Democrat—New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson—managed to reach the Oval Office. His initial victory in 1912 resulted not from the power of the Democratic message, but rather the legendary split between Republican President William Howard Taft and his mentor, former GOP chief executive Teddy Roosevelt, running as the nominee of the Bull Moose third party. Wilson got roughly the same percentage vote as the average for the two previous Democratic nominees, but this time he only needed a plurality. Four years later, Wilson managed an upset re-election victory on a peace message, falsely leading voters to believe he had no intention of getting America involved in World War I.

Shortly after Republican Herbert Hoover rode the GOP’s prosperity doctrine to yet another landslide triumph, the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929. And three years after “Black Friday,” the presidential election approached with the nation mired even deeper in the Great Depression. The economic collapse had caused voters to lose confidence in the GOP’s prosperity message. Democratic challenger Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted his party’s nomination by promising “a new deal for the American people.” But he carefully refrained from proposing specific, detailed spending plans—even his advisers weren’t certain what FDR would actually ask Congress to enact. The shrewd New Yorker, the only American ever elected president four times, knew voters didn’t need much encouragement to give him a landslide victory over the namesake for the Hooverville shanty towns spread across the desolate economic landscape.

From 1932 through 1948, Republicans belittled FDR’s New Deal domestic initiatives, saying these policies prolonged the Depression, and urged voters give the GOP’s prosperity message another chance. But in doing so these Republican leaders rejected a key aspect of the winning pre-Depression conservative message: Previous GOP presidents such as McKinley and TR didn’t see the federal government as the enemy to economic progress; they wanted a limited federal government yet accepted its rightful, albeit curtailed, role in the modern economy. Voters, who knew FDR’s reforms had improved their lives immeasurably, had little patience for the Republicans’ 24/7 anti-government argument, which appeared then—and now—out of touch with most peoples’ own experiences.

The result: From 1932 through 1948, the Democrats won five straight presidential elections.


As news spread of a successful Soviet A-Bomb test on August 29, 1949, and a post-World War II economy returned to normal, voter focus began to shift away from economy to the growing “Red Menace.” Anti-communist fears were exacerbated by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Wheeling, West Virginia, speech on February 9, 1950, charging Democrats with allowing “known communists” to operate inside the federal government. And just a few months later, in June, a surprise North Korean attack on South Korea, a U.S. ally, pushed the United States into a bloody, unwinnable Asian land war. Then on April 5, 1951, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were convicted and sentenced to death for giving American nuclear secrets to their spymasters in the Kremlin.

The 1952 presidential election featured the ideal Republican candidate given this rising anxiety:  legendary D-Day Commanding Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The likeable IKE won a landslide victory on a combined military and foreign policy doctrine he called “safety in strength,” morphing later into the more politically clever “peace through strength” message. This political theme unified the Grand Old Party’s various factions, thereby creating a dominant force in presidential politics. Between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won seven out 10 contests, five by landslides as many conservative anti-communist Democrats backed the GOP. The three winning Democratic presidential nominees—John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter— strongly backed the Eisenhower peace doctrine.

After four decades of American military pressure combined with internal domestic failures, the old Soviet Empire officially dissolved on December 26, 1991. The new Russian Federation wanted to be friends with the United States, not enemies. Without the threat of nuclear Armageddon and global military mischief presented by the former USSR, the GOP “peace through strength” mantra lost its unifying potency.

A successful national political party must by necessity accommodate voters with varying important interests. The trick is to allow these forces to whirl without diverting attention from the fundamental, big issues. Despite serious differences on economic, regional and social matters, GOP-leaning voters in the Cold War era feared Democrats were “soft” on communism, lacking the strength to stand-up to the Russians at the moment of truth. So the GOP remained unified, with the exception of 1964 when Barry Goldwater suffered big Republican voter defections because the Arizonian seemed too eager to shoot first and ask questions later.

But in November of 1992, many previously GOP-leaning voters upset with Republican President George W. Bush on tax, spending and budget policies cast a protest vote for Ross Perot, the mercurial Texas billionaire castigating Bush for permitting unsustainable deficit spending along with backing a trade policy benefiting Mexico at the expense of middle-class American workers. With a mushroom cloud no longer hanging over the presidential election, these voters weren’t worried that their defection to a third-party candidate might elect the first Democrat president since before World War I without any military experience, which it did.

Nearly a decade later, September 11th enabled Republican President George W. Bush to recast the peace message into a winning anti-terrorism national security theme in 2004. But it didn’t outlast his presidency, leaving Republicans with the same message void they’ve had since the end of the Cold War.


Eight-six years after being blamed for causing the Great Depression, and 24 years since taking credit for winning the Cold War, the presidential wing of the Republican Party has yet to craft a new prosperity or peace message seen as compelling by America’s changing electorate. The proof is plain to see: The GOP standard-bearer has managed to win the popular vote only once in the past 20 years. And even then, President George W. Bush won his 2004 re-election against Democrat John Kerry by the lowest popular vote percentage of any GOP incumbent in two-party history. He amassed 286 electoral votes, the Republican high score for this era, barely more than the 270 needed for a majority. This included two states—Nevada and New Mexico—with 11 combined electoral votes now seen by experts as likely Democratic in 2016 due to demographic changes.

By contrast, the Democratic coalition displays quadrennial transferability. Four different and consecutive Democratic nominees—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama—in a 12 year period (1996-2008) combined to win a far higher percentage of the popular vote than any comparable combination in the party’s history. Clinton and Obama together won four sizeable Electoral College majorities, with the Arkansan nearly winning a popular vote majority in 1996, despite being in a three-way race. Obama is the first Democrat since FDR to win back-to-back popular vote majorities. The Democrats’ once dominant New Deal coalition had withered by 1968. But these statistics suggest the nation’s oldest party is once again competitive, if not in reach of dominance, while the GOP presidential wing seems determined to perfect a circular firing squad.

Enter Mr. Donald Trump, the opportunistic, high profile businessman who can spot a business hamstrung by shaky leadership and being offered at a fire sale despite a potential competitive product. He knows the vacuum created by not having a compelling peace or prosperity message leaves an opening for a non-traditional self-funded candidate skilled at using secondary, hot-button issues to his advantage.

Trump’s current polling lead—as in 2011 when he momentarily rose to the top by appealing to voters who believed the president isn’t a native-born American—is not a cause of the GOP’s problems, but rather a potent symptom of its yet unsuccessful effort to craft a compelling platform. Or put another way: The so-called “serious” candidates with the “right” qualifications are not yet taken seriously on what have always been the election-defining issues of peace and prosperity.

In this sense, Trump is a gift: He is forcing rivals to develop their messages earlier and with more clarity. We call this the “Trump Primary.” As we approach the first GOP presidential primary debate, who will win the Trump Primary remains much in doubt. There may be no victor, since winning isn’t scored by delegates won as in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and other future GOP nomination battlegrounds.

But we do know this: In the Trump primary, and thereafter, the billionaire is no threat to a candidate with a winning Republican message, only a losing one.

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