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Even In Trump Era, Republicans Prioritize Pandering Over Pushing Back

Miami riots. Photo by Mike Shaeen/Flickr.

Republican politicians are right to be afraid. This is a frightening moment. The cultural left is feverish, and firmly in control of media and business. They are winning scalps left and right, and from the left and right. No whisper of dissent is tolerable. This is exactly why it’s not the time for pandering, and that’s a statement of both pragmatism and principle, since much of the GOP only seems concerned with the former.

Take Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, who framed his new qualified immunity bill as an imperfect reform effort introduced to ensure Republicans are part of the “conversation” about racial justice, since “Chuck Schumer‘s already decided he can make hay off it in the election.” Braun, a businessman, also endorsed the radical, leftist Black Lives Matter movement, rather than simply proclaim his categorical support for equality. The logic is that Republicans should make small sacrifices for political expediency in order to retain appeal with the public. (And then pass tax cuts.)

This may also be the logic behind a bill proposed by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) that would eliminate Columbus Day’s status as a federal holiday and replace it with Juneteenth. There’s a perfectly fair argument to be made for such a swap, but making it now is a concession to the statue topplers, an indication of mixed up priorities, and almost certainly rooted in political motivations.

Braun is correct that Republicans should be proactive about proposing reforms. Getting left out of “the conversation” is a legitimate problem with which the party struggles. What serious, conservative reforms have Republicans proposed during the early days of this tumultuous summer?

If the goal is to be a part of the conversation, lawmakers who share Braun’s concerns should be champing at the bit to offer innovative conservative solutions. Instead, we’ve gotten Braun’s qualified immunity bill and a bill to eliminate Columbus Day.

We’ve been asking this question for weeks now. Where is the conservative leadership? As riots burn our cities, vandals topple statues of men who died fighting to end slavery, and corporations elevate cultural leftism, what are Republicans doing to make a difference?

Rhetoric is important. Take Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “When the dust settles, it is never the mobs or the bullies that we honor. It is the brave leaders that confront them,” he says in a new ad.

While ads alone are insufficient, that is the message every action taken by every conservative should signal in this moment of intense cultural upheaval. The GOP’s priority should be fighting, not pandering—and it shouldn’t confuse the two either. As the infamous Republican autopsy of 2012 reminds us, consultant-crafted platforms aren’t the works of political art Beltway operatives believe them to be.

People are attracted to the bold colors Ronald Reagan spoke of, contrasting them with what he called “pale pastels.”

“Our people look for a cause to believe in. Is it a third party we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people?” Reagan said at an early gathering of CPAC.

Again, this approach is both more principled and pragmatic. When Reagan asserted that “people look for a cause to believe in,” he was arguing that politicians should be clear and enthusiastic about where they stand, for electoral purposes, and because it’s morally right.

I don’t know the demographic nuances of the so-called “silent majority” of people currently fretting over riots and statue destruction and #DefundThePolice. I think more people than conservatives realize are genuinely drifting away with the cultural leftist tide. Those people will not—they will not—be persuaded to vote Republican because Mike Braun introduced a milquetoast bill on qualified immunity, or because the GOP “led the charge” on swapping Columbus Day for Juneteenth.

They may be persuaded by a blend of righteous indignation and strong argumentation, by a party that plays offense and not defense, by politicians capable of authentically channeling their own anger and disbelief at what’s unraveling before our eyes —lockdowns, riots, iconoclasm. Despite the left’s insistence otherwise, most Republicans sweat at the prospect of wading into the culture war. Trump’s surprise surge changed some minds on the right on approaching these issues. Clearly some still haven’t gotten the message.

This isn’t to say the GOP should transform into an army of Trump wannabes, who spend their days tweeting about the faces of unfriendly cable news anchors. But they should be focused on the fight. I get that Republican lawmakers are reluctant to take the advice of cultural conservatives. But what they’re doing is not working, and the evidence suggests some boldness would do them good.

The Republican Party can stand for racial justice and American exceptionalism all at the same time. But making that case means prioritizing the fight against the cultural left’s madness, not giving inches that will lead to miles. Those miles will take us down a road where political expression is restricted to the far left and our country’s history is nearly erased—the ugly, the bad, all the way down to the good.