Isaac Chotiner: Ideologically and strategically, how do you think Trump’s loss will be understood among Republicans?
Perlstein: I’m kind of famous for coming up with a little epigram, “Conservatism never fails. It is only failed.” I came up with this during my long experience of studying the right, and realizing that basically anything that is politically successful is kind of labeled conservatism. Any failure is wiped off the books in this bad faith utterance that well, of course it failed because it wasn’t conservative. Romney wasn’t conservative enough. McCain wasn’t conservative enough. “Bush wasn’t conservative,” you began to hear in 2004, when the wheels came off the bus with Iraq, and all the rest.
That’s what we’ll hear, “Of course, Trump lost. He wasn’t conservative.” That allows everyone else in the Republican Party, basically, to push the infamous reset button. I think a lot of what we saw in the last couple of weeks with Trump’s various former supporters jumping ship, ostensibly because of this grotesque tape and the rest, is all about setting up that next move in the chess game. Everyone who has paid any kind of attention knew that Trump was this kind of guy in the first place. I think what we’ll see is the Paul Ryans and the Ted Cruzes, jockeying for the position of King of Conservatism saying, “We need to wipe the slate clean and go back to Reagan.” The dilemma that raises is that Trump has raised energies in the Republican electorate that may not be able to be so easily contained.
But Perlstein is skeptical about Hillary Clinton’s “actically shrewd and strategically questionable” attempts to reduce Trump into an outlier. Should the Democrats get the Senate (possible) and the House (not likely), Perlstein says he’s optimistic about Clinton’s progressive agenda:
The other day I allowed myself the fantasy of what a Clinton presidency is going to look like, and of course the big tactical question for every new president is which of their bills they introduce first, because that’s the one they have the most political capital to get across. I was like, well, it could be her paid family leave bill, it could be her bill for free college for everyone making under $125,000 and the debt relief for everyone. It could be her new tax credits for the very poor, who Peter Edelman—who resigned from the first Clinton administration over welfare reform—has said is the best poverty program he’s seen in a long time. I was like, wow, there really isn’t anything on her plate that isn’t a pretty strong, progressive, populist intervention. I’m pretty certain that there’s very little room for her to abandon that. She’s laid down some pretty strong markers
This would mean, of course, progressives avoiding the slough of victory whereby the fight against Trump exhausts all concerned.
Tonight I will live blog the third and, thankfully, last presidential debate.