The much-anticipated battle within the Republican party — widely expected to play out whether or not Donald Trump loses on Tuesday — has arrived early.
On October 11, a group of about three-dozen conservative intellectuals, political operatives, and former administration officials gathered to assess the damage Trump has done to the GOP and the problems he has revealed within it.
The meeting, first reported by Real Clear Politics, was hosted by Restart GOP, an organization founded last month by a handful of anonymous Republican operatives still working for party committees. The attendees included conservative columnist George Will, intellectuals Yuval Levin and Pete Wehner, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, and former Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff.
The discussion that ensued offered a preview of the existential questions that are already wracking the Republican party, and of how quickly any post-election intra-party conflict could turn personal.
Restart GOP brands itself not as #NeverTrump but as #AlwaysLincoln. A person familiar with the group’s plans describes it as “an anonymous group of GOP staffers, writers, and operatives” who are “dedicated to post-November party reform rather than stopping Trump.”
“The death of the Grand Old Party has been greatly exaggerated,” its founders wrote in a mission statement of sorts, posted to the website Medium on October 15. The statement highlights Republican leaders such as Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, Colorado senator Cory Gardner, New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte, and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley as evidence of the party’s vivacity. Trump is characterized as an aberration, a “parasite” who chose the Republican party as his host.
A parasite, of course, can be killed off and the host revivified, which makes the group’s view of Trump controversial in conservative circles. Indeed, the independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin arrived at the October lunch uninvited and prompted groans from some attendees, sources say, when he rose to advocate for the formation of a third party, and when he later weighed in publicly on what was supposed to have been an off-the-record conversation. “The reality is, having been on the inside of this, I know that even if the support for Donald Trump was 30 percent or 25 percent, that’s enough to control who’s the speaker of the House, it’s enough to create major havoc in policymaking,” he told Real Clear Politics. “It’s a big deal.”
These are just the opening salvos in a series of debates on matters petty and profound that are set to intensify in GOP circles starting on Wednesday.
On the campaign trail, McMullin, a former Capitol Hill staffer, has argued that the GOP is irretrievably racist. “I spent a lot of time in the Republican party believing that that was something Democrats and liberals would say,” he told the Washington Examiner’s Byron York on October 12. “But I have to say in the time that I spent in the House of Representatives and leadership and in senior roles there, I realized that no, they’re actually right. And Donald Trump made it ever more clear that there is a serious problem of racism in the Republican party.”
McMullin’s argument that the party is irrecoverable has been echoed by some prominent Republicans, among them Mitt Romney, who said last month that, absent Churchillian leadership, “I think it will be very difficult for Humpty Dumpty to be put back together again.” But his statements, one lunch attendee says, have angered others within the GOP. “When he started actively attacking the Republican party, it became an issue,” the attendee says.
Restart’s promotional literature, which was distributed at the event, lambastes GOP leadership for putting “money and power before principle and country.” It’s a phrase McMullin went on to use, in modified form, during an October 16 interview on Fox News’s Special Report and in a series of tweets. “Across the board Republicans are putting party and power before principle and country,” he said.
McMullin strategist Rick Wilson waves off the criticism and says the talking point has been a fixture of the candidate’s stump speech since his September 1 launch, when he criticized leaders of his “former party” for putting “party and politics over principle.” Wilson is also dismissive of Restart’s efforts. “They’re all completely full of their own conceit that this problem can be fixed with their own rebranding effort,” he says. “Trump has injected the Republican party with polonium: they’re dying, they just don’t understand it yet.” He adds that the coming internecine handwringing will be equivalent to “trying to restart the dead animal’s heart.”
“I’m at the point that I just don’t believe there is leadership in the Republican party that can or wants to change.”
#related#Feckless or not, Restart aims to make the party do just that. At the October lunch, group spokesman Michael Lehmann, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee staffer, ticked through a PowerPoint presentation that calls making the coming fight for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee more transparent. One slide argued that “Candidates running for RNC chair should complete a public questionnaire about their plans.” The group also aims to hold lawmakers and political consultants accountable for supporting Trump and to foster debate between and among Republicans.
These are just the opening salvos in a series of debates on matters petty and profound that are set to intensify in GOP circles starting on Wednesday. “There’ll be ten efforts like this, frankly, and I think they should all take a shot because you never know what hits a nerve,” says Bill Kristol. “I’m not in the business of, as they say, picking winners and losers ahead of time. I think it’s good for people to get stuff out there.”