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Sunday, October 23, 2016

WASHINGTON — The Fox News debate this week ought to be an occasion for the Republican Party’s presidential candidates to put new and innovative ideas on display. At the center of the discussion should be last Friday’s report about the historically anemic wage growth during this year’s second quarter.

Here’s guessing that the previous paragraph called forth dismissive chuckles among many shrewd readers for its naivete. We all “know” that the only important thing about Thursday’s encounter — other than which 10 candidates get to participate — is how the rest of the Republican field will deal with Donald Trump, and how The Donald will deal with them.

Many would blame this on Trump, and also on the nature of journalism these days. Well, sure. Trump has a lot to answer for. And the media tend to analyze debates by focusing on gaffes, and on whether a given candidate “did what he (or she) had to do” in political terms. This conditions how the candidates behave.

I would further concede that the mere inclusion of Trump’s name here likely increased my online page views. The media incentives these days militate against searching discussions of the Earned-Income Tax Credit or methods of prompting investors to take a long-term perspective.

But before they take the stage, the Republican candidates who get to confront Trump should ask themselves why a showman who gleefully ignores all the political rules has outshined the rest of the field.

There are many reasons to criticize the far right and what it has done to the GOP, with the complicity of its so-called Establishment. But it’s both remarkably elitist and also an analytical mistake to write off Trump’s backers as “crazies” while ignoring the source of their frustrations. They tend to be less well-to-do Republicans who are fed up with the political system, dislike the codes, and conventions that dictate the way most politicians talk, and have lost confidence that politics and government can really do very much for them.

That Trump is quite brilliant at faking authenticity (except for his thoroughly genuine belief that he’s far better than his opponents whom he loves to brand as “losers”) should not be held against his supporters. It’s not hard to see why they get a kick out of the extent to which he is getting under the skin of his many critics.

If Trump’s rivals see their task as proving themselves to be as theatrically gifted as he is, he’ll clobber them. But there’s an unconventional alternative: lifting up politics by embracing the idea that voters, especially those being hammered by the economy, aren’t dunces and would like for their government and their politicians to take concrete steps to improve their situations. This is especially important in a new economy that simply doesn’t deliver to large parts of the middle class, let alone the poor.

As it is, there is a terribly stale quality to the pronouncements even of candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio who are bidding to be the “new ideas” guys. While both at least talk about the need to restore paths to upward mobility, their underlying proposals remain rooted in the thinking of the Reagan era. Unwrap their well-packaged agendas and what you have are the same old nostrums: that government can do little about what ails us and that the path to Nirvana is still paved with tax cuts and business deregulation.

But as the progressive economist Joseph Stiglitz noted to me in a conversation last week, it’s precisely the rules and policies of the last 35 to 40 years that have helped lead the middle class into its current economic impasse. I don’t expect many conservatives to embrace Stiglitz’s views. But it would surely be an improvement if these candidates recognized that they are running in 2015, not 1980.

Is there no Republican engaging in a real — as opposed to superficial — questioning of the party’s old assumptions? Is there not even a glimmer of acknowledgement that if stagnating wages are the problem, further tilting the system toward employers and financiers is unlikely to solve it?

Trump’s supporters have an intuition that something is deeply wrong in their party. Their explanations for its shortcomings may differ from my own, but they are correct that the party is not delivering what they have a right to expect. Most candidates will play along with the disaffection. Those who try instead to reverse the loss of faith by responding to it constructively will deserve to win the debate.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Donald Trump points as he stands outside his hotel. Action Images via Reuters / Russell Cheyne. Livepic.

  • RED

    Good read with some valid points and truth. But dig a little deeper and you find that the “base” of the party is definitely angry but not quite exactly for the reasons in the article. Yes, they are fed up with the “Establishment” and politicians saying the same old same old and then failing to deliver. But what they want delivered is not economic equality or opportunity, they’re not bright enough to recognize the causes for wealth disparity. Actually there so ignorant they still believe the idea that it’s hard work and being smart is what makes someone wealthy and amazingly they believe this as it comes from a guy who’s family was worth 250 million at his birth. Seriously?? It’s amazing how gullible they are. But what the “base” really wants is for someone to express and even act on all the racist bigoted homophobic ideals. All the Republican candidates are the same kind of bigots and thieves, just most of them have enough sense to obfuscate their positions in hopes to not run off normal people. But The Donald will gladly translate the coded language in to exactly what they all think.

  • charleo1

    May be that all this cynicism, and frustration that Donald Trump is tapping into, started years ago, with none other than the Sainted R. Reagan himself. As he often said, “The 10 most terrifying words in the English language are, “Hi, I’m from the Gov. and I’m here to help.” Well, now a lot of Americans do need help from somewhere, and the GOP is mighty short on hard clear answers. Take Reagan, that former Roosevelt-ian, New Dealer, actor, turned Union Leader, falling on hard times, and winding up taking on the role of corp. spokesperson for GE. Who then, after a few years seem to become addicted to the propaganda he was pushing. And so emerged as the leading protagonist against his former self. In what he characterizes in his memoirs as more, or less an epiphany. Maybe so, but having been turned somewhat of a cynic myself, I think it was probably as simple as Reagan figuring out which side of his bread had the most butter on it, and going with that. Then taking all that corporate, anti-government baggage he learned at GE. right on into the WH. But nevertheless however it happened, it has become the new gospel of the Conservative Right. And has served to create this loss of faith. Which together with the over the top demonization of Democrats, as some kind of Godless Chi Guevara Revolutionaries, hell bent on destroying everything Holy. Has now calcified so thoroughly throughout the Republican Right. It’s left a lot of those believers adrift, and not knowing what to believe, if anything. Or where at last to turn for solutions.

    There was a lot to this throw the bums out theory. Back before big money took over politics. Politicians used to take that kind of sentiment very seriously. But no more. The fact is, the next batch will be just as unpalatable as the last. They’ll say the excact same things. Even as they might seem madder for affect, about saying them. Explaining past failures not as bad policy at all, but more a case of policies not being enforced strongly enough, so as to lead to better outcomes. Ergo, if the wealthy only had more money they were allowed to keep, they would gladly share it with everyone. But quickly explaining, we’ll need more of your votes this time to gain the power to shut the Democrats out. And, with all the problems they have been causing out of the way, prosperity is just around the next corner! I have no idea if the cynic set will settle on Donald Trump as their vote for change. Their vote for essentially none of the above Party choices. But one thing is for certain. The regular pols are having a much harder time selling that bag of goodies, that proverbial pig in a poke, than Ronald Reagan ever thought about.