For nearly a half-decade, Republicans became accustomed to saying one thing and thinking another. The impeachment vote was the last, best chance to break decisively with Mr. Trump. Yet once again most Republican lawmakers couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Mr. Trump still seems to haunt them, to instill fear in them. More than that, however: He has become them, weaving himself into their minds and communities so seamlessly that they are no longer capable of distinguishing their own moral sensibilities and boundaries from his, as they might once have done. After the disgraceful impeachment vote, the task for Republicans hoping to separate themselves from the Trump years, which was already hard, if not impossible, became harder still.
So for conservatives who are longing for a responsible political home and for those who believe healthy conservative parties are vital to the survival of democracy, what can be done to salvage the Republican Party?
To begin with, it needs leaders who are willing to say that something has gone very, very wrong. They don’t have to dwell on it, or make it the focus of their efforts every minute, but the next generation of Republican leaders cannot pretend that the last few years were politics as they ought to be. They need to acknowledge that a sickness set in and take steps to cure it.
From that should emerge a recognition that change is essential. That means putting in place a new intellectual framework, to do for the Republican Party in the 2020s what Bill Clinton did for the Democratic Party and Tony Blair did for the Labour Party in the 1990s, which was to break them of bad habits and modernize them. The situation is not exactly analogous (historical analogies never are), but there are some instructive similarities.
This is of course easier said than done, but Republicans need to move past cable news and talk radio. They must begin, again, to rely on think tanks and journals from various wings of the party to work toward a policy agenda to meet the challenges of the modern world, as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. Republican leaders need to change the way their party thinks about itself, and therefore the way the country thinks about the Republican Party. One way to do that is for different figures to put forward their vision for a new Republican Party, to see what gains traction.
For example, Senator Romney’s Family Security Act is an ambitious policy aimed at slashing child poverty and strengthening families by reducing penalties for marriage. (It would provide a monthly cash benefit for families, amounting to $350 a month for each young child, and $250 a month for each school-age child.) There are some interesting ideas in the area of national service, including this one from the Brookings Institution’s Isabelle Sawhill and Richard Reeves, encouraging a year of national service after high school as a way to foster national unity by bringing young people of different races, ethnicities, income levels and faith backgrounds together to work toward a common purpose, but also as a pathway to college. Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute is focusing his attention on ways to encourage social solidarity as a way to combat social alienation. My Times colleague David Brooks has written about this intellectual ferment on the right.
Right now all this may seem aspirational or even unachievable, but this is what has to happen if there is going to be a responsible conservative alternative to the Democratic Party. A new, post-Trump Republican Party should put in place a political infrastructure that supports conservatives in primary races who are responsible, intellectually serious and interested in governing rather than theatrics. Republicans need to talk about the country’s needs, not just the threats posed by the left. Having spread conspiracy theories and served as a battering ram against reality during the last four years, the Republican Party needs to root itself firmly in the world as it actually is. It must defend itself against QAnon and its allies whenever and wherever they present themselves, not just every once in a while. It must challenge those who want to make the Republican Party the nesting place of lunacy.