The Corner

White House

Trump’s Sway in the GOP

President Trump with House Speaker Paul Ryan at the White House, June 6, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

He’s got a lot of it, no question. But the extent to which the Republican party has become a cult of Trump is often exaggerated, and I think Mark Leibovich does so in this New York Times Magazine profile of Paul Ryan.

Far from any unified governing philosophy, the animating objective for much of today’s Republican Party has been reduced to whatever Trump does or wants. The main goal of many elected Republicans is to curry the approval of the president, avoid provoking him (or, worse, a tweet) and thus not inflame the “base.” Being deemed an infidel inside the Church of the Base can be lethal for even the most ensconced incumbent (Mark Sanford, a South Carolina representative and a persistent Trump critic, was primaried out of his misery in June).

Trump has wanted a lot of things that congressional Republicans haven’t given him: Obamacare repeal, action on infrastructure, immigration reductions. (In February, fourteen Republicans voted against the immigration legislation Trump favored, and none of them seems to be paying any price for it.)

And Sanford is not a good example of a well-ensconced incumbent. I wrote about his race in a recent NR:

While Sanford cited Trump’s tweet as the reason he lost, and may be right to do so, other factors complicate the picture. His victorious opponent, Katie Arrington, had been critical of Trump herself in 2016. And Sanford had weaknesses unrelated to Trump. Arrington frequently alluded to an extramarital affair of his that made national news when he was governor of South Carolina. His primary opponent in the last election, before Trump’s presidency, held him below 56 percent of the vote. (He lost nine points between the two elections.)

Again, Trump has real clout with Republican voters, obviously; it’s rational for Republican politicians to want to stay on his good side. But it’s also rational for Trump to concentrate his fire on those incumbents who have shown themselves to have weak political standing already. (See also Senator Jeff Flake, who won his seat in the first place with less than 50 percent of the vote.)

P.S. Leibovich, like others, sees Ryan as having sold his soul to Trump in exchange for not much. In a recent NR, I argued that Ryan had actually done quite a bit to shape the Trump presidency.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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