The late, great conservative Andrew Breitbart once famously said, "If you can't sell freedom and liberty, you suck." This statement rings truer today than perhaps any time since the revolutionary right-wing journalist's death. A stable majority of Americans view the Republican Party unfavorably. President Trump's approval is at a historic low just over four months into his presidency. Democrats have a seven-point edge in party affiliation over Republicans, the highest it's been since the 2016 presidential election season began in April 2015. Perhaps most frightening of all, the GOP is losing the millenial generation, with nearly half of voters under 30 who were Republicans two years ago having defected from the party since then. Although Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress (as well as a majority of governor's chairs and state legislatures across the country), the generic congressional ballot for 2018 has many on the right fearing that the Republicans' time in power will not last. Some have even speculated that socialism is inevitably and imminently coming to the United States.
How has the Republican Party fallen so far from the grace of the Reagan years? The problem isn't that Republicans have lost the ability to sell the message of liberty to the American people; it's that liberty is no longer the Republicans' message. President Trump ran a campaign chocked-full of left-wing rhetoric and Democratic talking points. He often railed about Obamacare being "disastrous" and "failing," but never articulated just what it was about Obamacare that was so bad. In fact, Trump championed keeping the Medicaid expansion and so-called "protections" for people with pre-existing conditions, two of the most damaging parts of President Obama's unconstitutional healthcare law. Trump also campaigned on economic protectionism, vowing to end free trade deals, impose tariffs on imports from China and Mexico, and prevent companies from doing more business overseas where labor and resources are cheaper. Furthermore, he vowed not to tamper with Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, three of the most harmful, unconstitutional government programs in American history and the "three horsemen" of the apocalypse that is the rise of socialism in the United States. To make matters worse, the president and his daughter Ivanka have begun pushing for legislation forcing employers to offer paid family leave to their employees, essentially making business owners pay people to have children and stop coming to work. (This is actually one of the primary planks of the Democratic Party's platform and was a hallmark of socialist Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign last year.) When the man who is the face of the Republican Party seems to reject the very notion of conservatism and individual liberty, what does being a Republican even mean anymore? And who is there left to advocate for the conservative principles Republicans used to stand for?
Members of the Republican Congress are by and large no better than President Trump. They seem to be trying to renege on their promise to repeal Obamacare and instead merely trim the edges of the Democratic former president's signature legislative achievement. They have largely fallen in line behind Trump's left-leaning agenda and have talked about a $1-trillion infrastructure bill (in a country that is currently $14.3 trillion in debt). Fiscal responsibility, free-market capitalism, and a limited government that allows people to keep more of what they earn and small businesses to operate as they please with little interference from Washington bureaucrats used to be the pillars of the Republican Party. Today, few Republicans seem willing to admit to valuing these ideas at all and almost none is able to make a cogent defense of conservative principles. The new Republican messaging tactic seems to be distract voters into electing Republicans for reasons unrelated to a conservative policy agenda, employing a combination of PC outrage, character assassination, and corruption charges against opponents, while keeping any sort of fiscally responsible economic message under wraps, hoping that voters will never catch on and somehow any remotely conservative agenda that gets passed will be buried under a news cycle about Russia or Hillary's emails.
Why has this become the Republicans' messaging strategy? Quite simply, it's because Republicans don't generally believe in conservatism. What they do actually believe varies from person to person, but essentially, there are five generic Republican politicians, each with a different "school of thought."
1. Liberal Democrats disguised as Republicans: Prominent examples include Senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). These people are simply liberal ideologues. They believe whole-heartedly in the pillars of the Democratic Party and despise the conservative ideology. They usually come from red states where only Republicans can get elected to statewide offices, and as such they have to register and run as Republicans so that they can get elected to Congress and enact their liberal agenda. They will often even defy their own party's establishment, attacking their proposals from the left. Cassidy infamously made a fuss over the GOP's Obamacare repeal proposals because he felt they didn't do enough to force insurance companies to pay the costs incurred by people who wait until they get sick to purchase health insurance (although every legitimate fact-checker points out that the GOP's proposals were already more than friendly to people with "pre-existing conditions"). When you have big-name Republicans preaching liberal talking points and opposing conservatism tooth-and-nail, who needs Democrats?
2. Establishment Republicans: These fellows make up perhaps most of the Republican Congress. They're standard, old-school politicians. They don't have any strongly held convictions. Some are perhaps moderately liberal, others perhaps moderately conservative, but it doesn't matter, as they don't vote based on their beliefs. They simply vote how they are instructed to by the party leaders. Sometimes this may mean a vote for a good bill, other times not so much. These people are only in it for the money and power. They couldn't care less what they have to say or do to get it, and would gladly switch parties tomorrow if it meant a safer path to re-election or a chance to pursue a higher office. (See former governor of Florida Charlie Christ and former senator from Pennsylvania Arlen Specter.) They are used to repeating standard talking points and memorized speeches in robotic fashion and they often encounter tough questioning from critics and reporters when their talking points contradict one another. (For example, "How can you support ending food stamp programs for poor people if you don't support ending welfare for wealthy corporations?") Party loyalty is the theme of their advocacy, not ideology, which is why they often struggle to make a principled case for why their policies are right for America.
3. Republicans in name only (RINO): See Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC). This type of Republican is generally a single-issue politician. Perhaps they care about strong national defense, or immigration, or trade deals. Whatever the case may be, there is one issue that draws them to the Republican Party and they are fiercely "conservative" on that one issue. On all other issues, they either could not care less what policies are passed or maybe even agree with the left. (McCain, for example, recently killed a GOP attempt to repeal an energy regulation using the Congressional Review Act.) These people often open themselves up to attacks based on hypocrisy, like, "If we can't afford to spend money on X (my issue), then why should we spend money on Y (your issue)?" These criticisms are actually often valid and can only be leveled against one who is not ideologically pure. The simple answer these politicians would like to give to such questions is, "Because my issue is more important than yours." Sure, they can make a strong case for the right-wing position on one issue, but after that they become completely useless if not counterproductive.
4. "Abstract" Republicans: Former governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR), former senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) come to mind. These people may disagree with conservatives on nearly every issue. Huckabee wants the federal government to set aside taxpayer dollars to fund the arts. Santorum wants to raise the minimum wage. Rubio supports paid family leave. However, they are still Republicans, usually due to some sort of abstract feeling of tribalism. It's often a deeply held religious belief, or a fear of immigrants, and the feeling that Republicans are more sensitive to social conservatism, while Democrats are godless, anti-American heathens who want to give everything to the blacks, Mexicans and Muslims. There are a lot of constituents like this who live in the Bible Belt states, too, and they genuinely care about which candidate wants to keep up a statue of Robert E. Lee in the city park more than they care about which candidate wants to raise their taxes and cut off funding for their oxygen tanks. Surprisingly, these people, despite not agreeing with the right on many issues that substantially affect public policy, are some of the most fiercely loyal Republicans. While they make great advocates for defunding Planned Parenthood, protecting the rights of the unborn, eliminating employer mandates for birth control coverage, and cracking down on illegal immigration, they often get in the way of a truly fiscally responsible conservative agenda and many want the government to spend more to give handouts to the lower-middle and lower classes.
5. The mythical conservatives: Well, not entirely mythical. There's the House Freedom Caucus and Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY). There are also a few decent governors across the country, Matt Bevin (R-KY), Scott Walker (R-WI), and former governor Pat McCrory (R-NC), to name a few. These people are the most conservative and ideologically consistent politicians and they also make the best advocates for conservatism, as they can genuinely defend their policies because they actually believe what they are saying. Unfortunately, these people are far and few and often don't get support from the DC establishment, making it difficult to get their message out and achieve upward mobility. Sen. Cruz's defeat in the Republican presidential primary last year was largely viewed as a result of his lack of connections with the DC establishment, cutting off his access to last-minute funding and endorsements in his effort to beat Donald Trump for the nomination. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) famously expressed his joy that Trump beat Cruz for the nomination due to the ire of the establishment Cruz incurred during his short tenure in the Senate. One must wonder whether establishment leaders like Bohener are still joyful today over Trump's becoming the head of the GOP.
With such a mediocre selection of people to represent conservatism to the public, it's no wonder people don't believe in conservatism (according to public opinion polls on a number of issues), and it's no wonder the Republican Party, which stands for nothing other than winning elections for people with Rs by their names, is so unpopular and continues to bleed support by the day. The GOP itself, for the most part, does not believe in individual liberty. President Trump is merely a symptom of the problem the party establishment's leaders have been creating since the Bush years. The Republicans have become the party of big government, corporate welfare, and European socialism, while the Democrats have gone so far off the spectrum they're now just a bunch of people who like to think of laws as merely "suggestions." As a result of the failed big government policies of both parties, Americans have begun to feel like both sides are screwing the middle class in favor of big corporations, illegal aliens, and other countries, which is why it was so easy for people like Sanders and Trump to develop large followings using populist rhetoric. However, as Trump's "status quo behavior" as president has proven, this populist rhetoric is rather hollow. Now that big government Republicanism, big government liberalism, and big government right-wing populism have failed to turn the country around, is it possible the next president will finally be a conservative?
Of course not! We still haven't tried big government left-wing populism yet!