The politics of fear have dominated the presidential race so far this year: fear of refugees, of free trade, of terrorism, of the other party. Multiple candidates in both parties (no, not just Donald Trump) have run whole campaigns based on appealing to people’s fears.
Of course, appealing to people’s fears is nothing new in American politics — indeed, there’s a certain element of that in many campaigns every year. What’s unusual is to see the presidential race so overcome by it to the point where many of the remaining candidates are defining themselves not by what they will do as president, but by what they won’t do.
This is no way to run a campaign, and it’s certainly no way to run a country.
It wasn’t always this way. In the past, candidates in both parties — liberals, conservatives and moderates — embraced a positive, reform-driven agenda. On the Republican side, Ronald Reagan promoted this concept fiercely, both as a candidate and as president. Today, there are still many Republicans promoting substantive, reform-oriented conservatism that can appeal to a broad swath of the electorate, not just the base. Nationally, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul — though they may come from different wings of the GOP — have all used this approach.
Here in Maine, it’s a staple of Republicans of all stripes, including Gov. Paul LePage. LePage may be blunt, but he’s consistently pursued substantive reforms that the state needs — from pension reform to welfare reform to tax reform — and those efforts have often gotten results, even when working with the Democrats. Our state reflects this spirit at the federal level, as well: U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Sen. Susan Collins have both been successful in working with the other party to get things done.
It is this spirit that both parties need to embrace more at a national level. When presidents do this, things get done: Ronald Reagan passed tax reform by working with a Democratic Congress, and welfare reform passed at the federal level when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich sat down together to get it done. We need candidates and leaders who not only govern this way, but who campaign this way.
We need people who aren’t afraid — and who aren’t trying to make us afraid — to run for office. We need candidates with real, specific agendas to get positive things done for this country, not just demagogues who appeal to people’s base instincts without any real ideas of their own. Throughout the Obama administration, Democrats have portrayed Republicans (inaccurately) as being the “Party of No” simply because they disagree with the president’s policy proposals. Though there are Republicans who tend to be against Obama’s policies just because he proposed them, it’s unfair to paint the entire party with that brush — just as it would have been unfair to characterize Democrats as such when George W. Bush was president.
However, if Republicans want to continue to be able to jettison that label for the party, they would be wise not to embrace a candidate who embodies that characterization — or one who appears to for political expediency. If Republicans embrace the “Party of No” label, they’ll doom themselves to opposition status for the duration.
The GOP needs to be a party with serious ideas of its own, not just one filled with knee-jerk naysayers. As an exceptional nation and as the world’s greatest democracy, America deserves a campaign with a vibrant, bold, substantive debate between its two largest parties, not one that constantly devolves to the lowest common denominator.