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‘There’s reason to be optimistic about the Republican Party, or at least hopeful’

Betsy Woodruff, a political reporter for The Daily Beast, hosts a conversation with Evan McMullin, the former chief policy director of the House Republican Conference, George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, and Mark Sanford, a former governor of South Carolina and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The rise of Bernie Sanders and the far left is “a massive failure of Republican leadership,” said Evan McMullin, the former chief policy director of the House Republican Conference, to an audience of students, faculty and staff at Northeastern Tuesday night as part of a conversation about the future of the Republican Party. 

“Right now, we should be bringing more and more people onto the idea of free enterprise and expanding economic opportunity,” he said. “Bernie Sanders, poised to capture the Democratic primary, just shouldn’t be the case. It’s a massive failure of leadership.”

Sanders has been leading the polls after winning Democratic primary contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and most recently, Nevada.

In opening the discussion, moderator Betsy Woodruff, a political reporter for The Daily Beast, described Sanders as “someone who has been able to distract my colleagues in the media and I from Donald Trump for 10 minutes.” She asked the panelists to comment on whether the Sanders and Trump campaigns are indicative of the waning power of political parties.

McMullin responded that the trend toward populism raises questions about whether the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties will have the courage to establish systems that reflect the will of the majority of their voters. 

Betsy Woodruff, political reporter at The Daily Beast, moderates a conversation with Evan McMullin, executive director of Stand Up Republic and former policy director for House Republicans, Mark Sanford, former governor and congressman from South Carolina, and George P. Bush, Texas Land Commissioner, during Northeastern’s Civic Experience: The Future of the GOP event held in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex on Feb. 25, 2020. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The panelists, including George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, and Mark Sanford, a former governor of South Carolina and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, alluded to an “underlying anxiety” and “angst” among the American public. Bush said that people are worried about changes, such as job displacement, fueled by technological advancements and automation, and he drew attention to high suicide rates and the heroin abuse crisis. 

“There’s something deeper that’s at stake here, and it’s being reflected in our politics,” said Bush. “I agree tactically, whether it’s the Republican Party or Democrats, we need to reform the process.”

One way that the Republican Party has changed since 2015, said Sanford, is that in order to remain relevant, party members, such as Lindsey Graham, the senior senator from South Carolina, have done “virtual backflips” to remain in “the orbit of Trump.” 

“That’s what Trump requires, and I can give you a long list of other political figures who have done the same,” Sanford said.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Bush dismissed a question about whether the Trump presidency has accelerated the shift from Texas as a Republican-majority state to an increasingly Democratic one,  as an “untested theory.” He did, however, acknowledge that it’s a “different day in Texas.”

“It’s changing, and people from all over the country are moving in,” Bush said. 
“It’s exciting. It’s young. The average age in Austin is about 29 years old. And so politicians, we do change with the times at times, but we’re going to have to have a message that’s younger, that’s more diverse.”

Bush predicted that on a national level, the country would return to what he called “classical conservatism,” similar to the presidency of his grandfather, George H.W. Bush, with a focus on a limited role for the federal government, traditional values such as religion and morality, and the implementation of gradual as opposed to radical changes within the confines of society.

Both Sanford and McMullin expressed worries about Republicans receiving the blame for an eventual economic downturn.

“My prediction is that Trumpism will be snuffed out by economic reality,” Sanford said. “I will bet you if Trump gets reelected, that’s going to be the movie that plays out.”

 But, McMullin said, there’s reason to be hopeful, if not optimistic, about the future of the Republican Party.

Despite the challenges facing Americans, they’ve never had more opportunities for economic advancement, he said. And if Democrats move toward a socialist system, that could give Republicans an opportunity to “rise again in a healthy, very politically powerful way.” 

But, he said, that won’t be easy, and that it would require the party to do more to appeal to women, minorities, and young voters.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for the Republican Party to make the changes it needs to do to bring those people in as voters and to represent those people unless, and until, it suffers some significant political defeats,” McMullin said.

The program marked the seventh installment of “The Civic Experience,” which profiles the generation of cutting-edge leaders who are shaping media, politics, and policy.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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