Viewpoints

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The real GOP divide is whether candidates are hopeful about America

Ben Carson, right, and Donald Trump, who are leading the polls, laugh together during the CNBC Republican presidential debate on Oct. 28.
Ben Carson, right, and Donald Trump, who are leading the polls, laugh together during the CNBC Republican presidential debate on Oct. 28. The Associated Press

Maybe our definition of the Republican presidential contest is a little off.

It’s often cast, accurately enough, as a choice between “outsiders” and “insiders.” But another party division may be more profound – between Republicans who still view the country’s future hopefully, and those deeply gloomy about its prospects.

The pessimism within significant sectors of the GOP is more than the unhappiness partisans typically feel when the other side is in power. It’s rooted in a belief that things have fundamentally changed in America, and there is an ominous possibility they just can’t be put right again.

This is one of the big contrasts between the two parties: Democrats are more bullish on the future.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has a big lead in the national polls because Democrats broadly favor continuity, with some tweaks. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders offers a tough critique of inequality and the outsized power of the rich. But he and his supporters are comfortable with the country’s cultural direction and have enough faith in government to believe it can engineer the reforms that economic fairness requires.

These thoughts are provoked by an evening spent watching last week’s GOP presidential debate with a group of Republicans pulled together here for me by Sarah Stewart, a New Hampshire political consultant. They were anything but pitchfork-bearing rebels, and many of them are involved with local government. There was not a Donald Trump or Ben Carson supporter in the lot.

The debate watchers shared the media’s view in one respect: They all agreed that Jeb Bush had a bad night. The consensus was that the strongest performance came from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, not Marco Rubio, the man lifted high by the very media he and the others enjoyed attacking during the event.

But the most instructive part of the evening came toward the end when Ross Terrio, a Manchester school board member, took the conversation to a different place, describing his response to President Barack Obama’s time in office. “I have gotten so pessimistic,” he said. “I used to be such an optimistic person. Maybe Obama just sucked the life out of me.”

Jon DiPietro, a libertarian-leaning businessman, shared Terrio’s worries that the country’s problems might be beyond our ability to solve, especially if Democrats win the White House again. Reflecting his skepticism about the public sector, DiPietro said he had warned his daughters about a dark future in which “government’s going to be reaching into your wealth.”

Others in the group pronounced themselves more hopeful. Toni Pappas, a Hillsborough County commissioner, highlighted her faith that the inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit of the next generation would pull the country through.

But that this argument about the country’s long-term viability could break out among these thoughtful citizens – they in no way fit the stereotypes we liberals sometimes hang on conservatives – speaks to a central reality of our politics: Many Republicans see government itself as almost irreparably broken.

This is why there’s cheering on the right for the obstructionism of groups such as the House Freedom Caucus. Throwing sand in the gears of the machine is an honorable pursuit if you believe the machine is headed entirely in the wrong direction. It’s also why Trump and Carson will not be easily pushed aside.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.

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