Opinion | The Revolt of the Republican Strategists

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Last week I found myself reading “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump,” the new book by Stuart Stevens, the longtime Republican operative and chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s losing 2012 campaign for the presidency. Stevens belongs to one of the notable sects in the church of NeverTrump, consisting of figures who once held prominent posts in Republican campaigns — Steve Schmidt, John Weaver and Rick Wilson, most notably — and now have reinvented themselves as the Trump-era party’s would-be scourges.

The sect’s institutional embodiment is the Lincoln Project, which runs ads against the president and his Republican enablers and finds itself mixed up in two running arguments at the moment — an intra-liberal argument about whether to welcome or shun the ex-Republican strategists and the political tendency they represent, and an intra-conservative argument about whether rejecting Trump requires a “burn it all down” approach to the rest of his political party.

Both arguments turn, in part, on the question of what the Lincoln Project actually stands for — what ideas would its strategists import into the center-left, were they welcomed there with open arms, and how they imagine rebuilding the Republican Party, were the entire G.O.P. somehow actually burned down?

From following a few of the Lincoln Project men on Twitter and reading the things they write, I have a hard time figuring out the answer to these questions, mostly because it’s hard to distinguish their takes from a banal MSNBC liberalism. It’s easy to see what they hate about Trump; it’s harder to see, for their present personae, what they ever liked about the Republican Party or conservatism.

I turned to Stevens’s book because I thought it might supply an answer, since it’s billed as an examination of conscience, in which the author takes responsibility for various moral compromises that led to Trump’s rise. But the book only deepens the mystery, because “It Was All a Lie” doesn’t give you any sense of why its author spent his entire adult life (Stevens is in his 60s) in the service of a party whose supporters he mostly depicts as rotten frauds and hypocrites and racists, just as bad as liberals always suspected, if not worse.

Stevens does not really offer a story of intellectual conversion or gradual ideological disillusionment. He doesn’t tell us that he used to believe in supply-side economics but now rejects it, or that he used to be against abortion or same-sex marriage but came to a different view, or that he used to favor welfare reform and tough sentencing laws and now repents.

There is one brief account of rereading a Myron Magnet book on the 1960s and the underclass, once assigned by Karl Rove, after Trump’s ascent and finding it more racially obtuse than he remembers. But mostly Stevens presses a critique of Republican voters, activists and operatives — and white religious conservatives above all — that makes its author seem less like a convert with a tale to tell and more like the world’s most clueless mercenary, a political veteran who noticed only after several decades that he was fighting for what was, by his own account, transparently the wicked side.

Stevens would probably reply that he was led astray by the fact that the Republicans he tried to get elected, from Tom Ridge to George W. Bush to Mitt Romney, were good and decent public servants who tried to rescue conservatism from its own worst impulses. And one could imagine a more interesting version of this book that leaned into this narrative, portraying an American right torn between its better angels and its devils, and Trump’s rise as a defeat in a battle that could have easily gone another away.

But Stevens is so determined to emphasize his party’s total depravity that his only answer to the hard question of why Republicans swung from Romney’s technocratic decency to Trump’s know-nothing flamboyance is that Trumpism was the beating heart of conservatism all along. Which makes the book self-flagellating but also weirdly self-exculpatory: Sure, Stevens and his Lincoln Project friends might have notionally been in charge of G.O.P. campaigns in the pre-Trump years, but you can’t really blame any of their strategic choices for bringing the party to this pass, because a race-baiting reality-TV huckster was what the party’s voters had always really wanted.

There is another way of reading this history, though, that’s suggested by a passage where Stevens is emphasizing the fundamental emptiness of G.O.P. rhetoric on deficits and taxes. “But still the Republican Party continues to push tax cuts the same way the Roman Catholic Church uses incense for High Mass,” he writes, “as a comforting symbolism for believers that reminds them of their identity.” And then, pushing the analogy further: “Being against ‘out-of-control federal spending,’ a phrase I must have used in a hundred ads, is a catechism of the Republican faith. But no one really believes in it any more than communicants believe they are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ.”

Except that in point of fact, many communicants at a Catholic Mass do believe that they are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. And this is particularly true among the conservative Catholics whose votes were essential to the Republican politicians Stuart Stevens tried to get elected president.

For Stevens to either not realize this or sweep away a pretty important religious conviction with a nobody actually believes that wave makes me somewhat doubtful of his larger claim to expert knowledge about all the people who voted for Bush, for Romney or for Trump.

It suggests, instead, that at some level Stevens and his fellow Republican strategists regarded their own voters in exactly the way certain populist conservatives always claimed the Republican establishment regarded its supporters — as useful foot soldiers, provincials to be mobilized with culture-war appeals, religious weirdos who required certain rhetorical nods so that the grown-ups could get on with the more important work of governing.

In which case the original sin of the strategist class wasn’t moral compromise or racial blindness but simple condescension: a belief that they didn’t need to take their own constituents seriously, that they could campaign on social issues and protecting the homeland and govern on foreign wars and Social Security reform and that it would all hang together. Which it did — until a demagogue came along who was ready to exploit the gap between promises and policy, and to point out that the Republican adults supposedly in charge of governing weren’t actually governing very well.

“What does a center-right party in America stand for?” Stevens asks, in the closest thing to an ideological statement his book contains. “Once this was easy to answer: fiscal sanity, free trade, being strong on Russia, personal responsibility, the Constitution.”

In fact, this list neither distills the issues that conservative voters cared most about before 2016 nor accurately describes the major challenges facing the United States when Stevens was trying to get Mitt Romney elected president. All it distills is a cloistered center-right elite consensus, hawkish and globalist and fatally naïve, whose failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and China and domestic political economy mattered at least as much to the rise of Trump as the crankish or bigoted aspects of conservatism that Stevens spends his book decrying.

A strategist is not a statesman, but there should be some nodding acquaintance between the two professions. And statesmanship requires two qualities: a basic sympathy for people you aspire to lead, so you can guide them toward the best political expression of their principles; and a realistic assessment of the challenges they face, so that you can justify your own power by doing something to address them.

The Republican Party became Donald Trump, in the language of Stevens’s subtitle, not because of conservatism’s inherent depravity but because its would-be statesmen failed these tests — failed at governing, in the years of George W. Bush, and failed at campaigning, in the doomed runs of John McCain and Romney.

Those failures brought dark things to the surface, and I have no quarrel with what the strategist class has to say about the particular depravity of Trump or the moral compromises of his admirers. Nor do I object to their attempts to cut ads that they think will bring him down.

But the book I want to read from figures like Stuart Stevens isn’t about how Republican voters failed them, but how their own strategic choices failed their voters — and pushed them, in the process, toward the temptation that was Trump.

Absent that kind of self-scrutiny, whether the rebel strategists end up on the center-left or some reconstructed center-right, it’s hard to imagine any case for ever giving them political responsibility again.

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