JPod for the Defense: John Podhoretz has posted a civil, sophisticated, heartfelt response to Nicholas Confessore’s recent NYT piece–a piece that claims GOP elites ignored the complaints of many blue collar Republican voters to stick with an “economic program still centered on tax cuts for the affluent and the curtailing of popular entitlements.” Some points:
— Podhoretz’s piece is titled “Trump’s Rise Was NOT Predictable.”
I’m pretty sure no one but the smart and wild and nutsy Roger Stone saw the revolutionary potential of Donald Trump specifically.
But of course Confessore doesn’t argue Trump’s rise was predictable. He argues the GOP elite ignored the concerns of lots of Republicans, and then Trump–out of the blue, maybe– took advantage of that.
— Podhoretz realizes this and then claims Trump is succeeding not because a) he addresses those concerns but because b) “he has become the personal representative of some of the worst qualities in the American body politic is still suspect.” Evidence for b) is not offered. Podhoretz instead concentrates on knocking down a) — the idea that Trump addressed ignored concerns .
— On trade, Podhoretz says no “Republican official poring over polling” after 2012 would conclude trade was a big issue. That doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t a big issue.. It might mean GOP officials (and Podhoretz) should spend less time poring over polling and more time listening to voters (like some of the voters Confessore describes). Certainly Trump seems to have revealed a more widespead GOP hostility to free trade than many expected — perhaps because he gives voters permission to declare concerns they were previously reluctant to reveal to pollsters. Or perhaps because the polllsters’ questions were (as they are on immigration) designed to produce particular (in this case, pro-free-trade) results.
— On entitlements, Podhoretz agrees that middle class voters think they’ve earned Social Security retirement benefits. He suggests the best way to help them would be to reduce the regressive payroll tax. But of course the GOP elite didn’t focus on reductions the payroll tax. It persisted in pursuing Paul Ryan’s think-tanky plans to privatize Social Security and voucherize Medicare, plans that, whatever their fiscal benefits, added more market driven uncertainty into the lives of Americans already stressed out by market-driven uncertainty. If that wasn’t obvious to the GOP elites watching the Tea Party rallies of 2010 (“Hands off my Medicare”) it was obvious to others!
— On immigration, Podhoretz flips his argument, Nathan Thurm style: Of course the GOP elite knew their base hated “comprehensive immigration reform”! (“Oh, how they knew.”) But the elite was convinced it had to be passed to appease the growing Latino vote, at least in presidential elections. If they then 1) pretended to everyone — including the press– that amnesty was more popular than it really was in order to 2) con the base into letting it sneak through, hey, they were only being hard-nosed realists! The trouble is they were trying to push through a particular kind of immigration reform — amnesty first, enforcement later — that had failed to stop illegal immigration flows before and (perhaps for that reason) was demanded by Congressional Democrats. If they’d stood up to the Democrats — harnessing some of that GOP grassroots anger they knew was out there! — they could eventually have cut a different sort of deal, one that guaranteed enforcement as a precondition for any discussion of legalization, but that did offer eventual legalization to immigration-oriented Latino voters. Why didn’t they do that? ** Answer: Because Amnesty First reform wasn’t just a practical sop to an ethnic voting bloc. It’s what the GOP business elite actually wanted — i.e., a steady flow of eager, wage-restraining workers for the foreseeable future.*** Maybe this is also the reason why the allegedly hard-nosed elite actually believed all the polls ginned up by Latino activist groups (most prominently an outfit called Latino Decisions) designed to show that they really had to cave on immigration fast or else their party was doomed.
— None of these (Podhoretz’s) points refute the idea that the elites ignored what Trump revealed to be the concerns of huge numbers of Republicans (even if they are only 40% of the party****). At best, Podhoretz excuses or justifies that failure: They didn’t know! Their polls didn’t tell them! They knew and ignored the damn voters for a good reason!
OK. But that’s what they did. And now they are paying democracy’s price. Which is Confessore’s point.
Update: Josh Green tweets– “Hogwash [that] GOP didn’t know trade was in issue. Exploited it for elections, ignored once in power: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2011-11-17/china-bashing-on-the-campaign-”
**– Podhoretz says Republican elites have now “abandoned the Gang of Eight approach.” This will be news to Paul Ryan. It is, alas, BS. If Podhoretz mistakes an election-year policy paper from Ted Cruz for the long-term GOP elite position, he’s more naive than the editor of Commentary, or even The Nation, should be.
***– “We need labor and we need votes”– Pollster Kellyanne Conway, quoted by Confessore on how GOP donors explained their resistance to her 2014 suggestion that they seize on voter anger about immigration.
****– … which they aren’t, since a lot of the GOP opposition to Trump comes from voters who don’t like Trump for his personal qualities, not voters who don’t think he’s addressing their concerns.