Republican hubris? Trump and GOP are dismantling Obama's legacy; if they go too far, they risk doom

As a loyal conservative, I see great danger ahead if Donald Trump and the hard right can't reach out to moderates

Published January 27, 2017 9:59AM (EST)

 (Getty/Drew Angerer/Alex Wong)
(Getty/Drew Angerer/Alex Wong)

Republicans and conservatives, understandably exuberant after the thrill of an unexpected electoral victory, risk losing their long-term vision for America if they don’t learn to engage across the aisle and entice a persuadable middle.

If Barack Obama hadn’t pushed the national agenda so far to the left and been so dismissive of the Tea Party revolution, I believe he could have avoided a complete dismantling of his legacy. So also, President Donald Trump risks going too far to the right if he cannot measure his actions, thus running the risk of seeing his future legacy vanish after he leaves office. 

The idea that the Trump administration should go after every single item on the conservative agenda, full speed ahead, in the context of severe political and cultural divisions, could well become a prescription for Republican disaster.

Trump campaigned on a nationalist, populist agenda that could move the country much further right than if a more mainstream Republican like former governor Jeb Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio had been elected. Yet Trump also won on a platform appealing to the working class that bodes well for building a lasting coalition of new, nontraditional GOP voters. To no one's surprise, Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by large margins among minority voters, but he did better among blacks and Latinos than Mitt Romney did in 2012.

Obama didn't need agreement from the Tea Party or other right-wing conservatives — and certainly wasn't going to get it. He needed, however, to peel off a few Republican moderates, but got none on Obamacare and many other policies he pushed through on a one-party basis when Democrats controlled Congress (or did on his own after that). It's likely that at least a few red-state Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, will find themselves agreeing many of Trump's actions, which could create a durable coalition. If Trump can realign blue-collar union types (of all demographics) into the Republican fold, the Democratic Party could be in trouble.

Evan Siegfried's warning in The New York Times about the danger of Republicans' dismissing the power of the Women’s March demographics outlines some possible areas of reconciliation between Republicans and marchers. That’s not to say that Republicans must suddenly cave on issues of principle, such as abortion or health care. It's about finding areas of agreement and improving their messaging. That's how Ronald Reagan progressed from winning 44 states in 1980 to 49 states in 1984, while Obama went from winning 28 in 2008 to 26 in 2012. (Hillary Clinton garnered just 20 in November.)

Winning the Electoral College in 2016, while losing the popular vote for the sixth time in the last seven presidential elections, is a precarious Republican business model in light of American demographics. Even if President Trump successfully deports millions of illegal immigrants, the demographic tea leaves are not in favor of the Trump strategy. (Which is perhaps why Obama seemed so focused on race in his farewell address, a disheartening rejection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s race-blind vision for the country). Statistics from Pew suggest that the majority of babies born in the U.S. this year will be nonwhite, even if it was largely older white rural voters who propelled Trump to victory.

If we conservatives are supposed to be the responsible, forward-looking force in American politics, it makes no sense for GOP leaders to ignore the fact that congressional districts, and ultimately the Electoral College, will continue to shift based on population growth and demographic change. Yes, there is some migration to previously red states, but that is unmistakably turning those states purple or blue, as in the cases of Colorado, Virginia and Nevada.  

That is likely to make national victories ever more difficult for Republicans, unless there's better messaging and resonance. Fortunately for the party's future, some GOP leaders do understand this, from House Speaker Paul Ryan to Sens. Marco Rubio, Tim Scott, Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul. The elevation of former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, a Trump critic during the GOP primaries, to U.N. ambassador was a smart choice by Team Trump.

Beyond partisan electoral victories, conservatives should be most concerned about changing lives for the better. Republicans would be wise to avoid Obama's partisan blunders mistake if they preserve whatever progress they make. Without reaching to the persuadable American middle, the Republican Party risks treading a perilous path to political oblivion. During his primary, Trump slashed and burned much of the political capital he will need to unite the country behind him. In the classic handbook "The Art of Warby Sun Tzu, the famed general explained why Trump’s approach was a rookie one:

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

Donald Trump is the least popular new president in many decades, since the dawn of public opinion polling. He indeed secured the votes needed to win the White House, but by Sun Tzu's standard, this risks becoming a Pyrrhic victory at best. Trump’s nationalistic “America first” ideology is largely calibrated to appeal to a demographic that does not match the actual future of America.

By Carrie Sheffield

Carrie Sheffield is a Salon Talks host, founder of Bold and adviser to Lincoln Network. She previously wrote editorials for The Washington Times, covered politics for POLITICO and The Hill and analyzed municipal credit for Goldman Sachs and Moody's Investors Service.

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