The GOP’s Choice: To Lead, Or to Cheerlead?

Just like the employer who is convinced that what’s really necessary to boost workforce morale is a motivational speaker rather than a wage increase, the GOP establishment is convinced that just one more pep talk about the need to be ‘optimistic’ and to ‘not give into fear’ is just what is needed to rein in the recalcitrant base that won’t let go of their infatuation with Trump.  In a gorgeous Capitol Hill committee room with several American flags serving as background, Speaker Paul Ryan delivered a speech about the state of American politics before an audience filled with young interns — after all: there is nothing more uplifting than speaking to young people, for they are our future! His blue eyes sparkling more than usual and his voice was filled with the eagerness of a young lover, Ryan spoke about the American founding ideals, the need for civility, and his desire for politics to be an aspirational battle of ideas.

In other words: the same drivel that the Republican consultant class finds irresistible but falls on deaf ears outside the Beltway.


It was the same speech that Jeb! delivered during his “joyful tortoise” phase of his campaign, when the brightest Republican political strategists concluded that the best way to defeat Trump was to ignore him. After months of talking about his hopeful vision for America and millions of dollars in advertising touting his conservative record as Florida governor, Jeb languished at the bottom of the polls, as the voters just didn’t seem interested in ‘optimism.’ Eventually, the tortoise campaign found its final resting place on the beaches of South Carolina.


Undeterred by the failure of Bush’s hopeful message to blunt the Trump train of realism, the consultant class next pinned their hopes on Marco Rubio. Surely a younger, more attractive Latino messenger with a natural smile instead of Jeb’s nerdy demeanor would cause Republican voters to turn away from the anger. To boost their chances of success, Rubio was paired with Nikki Haley, the Indian-American governor of South Carolina, and Tim Scott, the African-American senator from the same state. Rubio, Scott, and Haley appearing together on the campaign trail were tagged by the media as a Benetton commercial, much to the joy of Republican consultants who for years have argued that there is no need to alter GOP policies — just more ‘diverse’ messengers. Alas, the Benetton team also failed to stop Trump, and eventually the Rubio campaign came to an end in Florida.

Ryan’s speech was greeted by a resounding approval from the DC political class, which seems more concerned with ‘tone’ and sophistication than with the fact that the working-class has not seen a raise in decades. In his speech, Ryan acknowledged that Americans have lost faith in their government, but was unwilling or unable to address the reason for that loss of trust, nor the sense among rank and file Republicans that the party’s leadership is more attentive to the desires of their donors than the people. He spoke eloquently about the consent of the people being at the heart of the American political system while failing to acknowledge the effort underway to thwart the will of the primary voters choosing Trump. Finally, the Speaker held up Jack Kemp as the example after whom the GOP should model itself, seemingly unaware that that the party is already attached to Kemp’s obsession with tax cuts as a solution to every economic ill.

Instead of continuing to reach into the 1980s or looking for the next attractive messenger to deliver another pep talk, the GOP leadership needs to take a close, hard look at the utter failure of the policies they have advocated. Despite racking up trillions in debt, our healthcare system is still in shambles; we spend more on education than another country and yet we rank in the thirties in terms of results; we have been fighting terrorism for fourteen years and our enemies seem to get stronger.  Rank and file Republicans feeling disillusioned with the party leadership and our political institutions are experiencing a rational response to real problems. What is not a rational response is to peddle the same talking points that make politicos feel good about themselves but fail to address the concerns of voters.