On the menu today: The coming week promises four nights of pure, concentrated President Trump at the 2020 Republican National Convention; the GOP heads into 2020 with no formal platform, and sorting out whether or not that’s significant; thinking about the long list of policy issues Republicans still need to argue about; and something missing from the GOP convention page.
Get Ready for a Week of Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump . . .
President Trump will appear every night at this year’s Republican National Convention.
Featured speakers at this year’s convention include the first lady, four of the president’s children, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle. (The full list of speakers features more GOP officials and American citizens.)
As a 2017 Rich Lowry column headline declared, “There is only Trump.”
In 2020, the Republican Party will rise or fall dependent upon how Donald Trump does. We will see some Republicans get more votes in their state and district than Trump did here and there, but there won’t be many wide disparities. Maine senator Susan Collins got more than 61 percent of the vote in 2008, when John McCain won just over 40 percent. We are unlikely to see ticket-splitting on a scale like that again.
In 2016, Republicans with personas, viewpoints, and styles distinctly different from Trump’s won, often taking a different path to victory, winning counties and precincts that Trump lost and vice versa — think of Senators Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Rob Portman in Ohio, Mike Lee in Utah, John McCain in Arizona, and Marco Rubio in Florida. Republicans won governor’s races in New Hampshire and Vermont, even as Trump lost the first state narrowly and the latter state by almost 25 points.
After nearly four years of Trump in the Oval Office, it’s just much tougher for a Republican incumbent to cultivate an image distinct from that of Trump. As noted last week, Collins, Cory Gardner, Thom Tillis, and Martha McSally are all facing the toughest races of their careers, and Trump is either unlikely to win their states or headed to a close finish.
You can argue that elected Republicans should have stood up to President Trump more over the past four years and put more effort into retaining a public identity distinct from the president. I would argue that, too. But I think something that gets missed is how quickly and thoroughly the deck became stacked against Republican lawmakers who openly opposed the president.
Who had the backs of these lawmakers? Who was and is getting rewarded — by the electorate, by the media (both the mainstream media or conservative media), by donors, or by the culture at large — for standing on principle? If a GOP senator said, “The president is wrong, and he shouldn’t behave this way,” who was going to defend him from his MAGA critics? Anybody on Fox News primetime? Any of the big names in talk radio? Would any potential primary rival have said, “Yeah, he really has a point, that’s a fair criticism, and Trump really stepped in it this time”? Would the National Republican Senatorial Committee or National Republican Congressional Committee have spent a fortune to defend them in a primary?
Because the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee were not about to give anti-Trump Republicans a break!
Right now, Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania is the incumbent House Republican running for reelection who votes with the president’s position the least. The message from his opponent this cycle? “Around here we have a congressman who professes loyalty to a president who has no loyalties to the families and communities that make America strong. Brian Fitzpatrick is too weak to stand up to Donald Trump when it matters most. He stood by Trump while this president sowed chaos and division. He stood by this president as he bungled the worst public health crisis in a century and focused on helping the rich while 41 million Americans went without work.”
The message from Democrats is that Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous, even fascistic threat to American values, and that Congressional Republicans are obligated to defy the president, even if it increases the odds of being defeated in a future election. And then, once a Republican does this, a Democrat will seize the opportunity to knock that Republican out of office in the next election. The message is, “You should do the right thing and sacrifice your career, and we should be the beneficiaries of your sacrifice.”
The New York Times and MSNBC didn’t give anti-Trump Republicans a break. Members of a party always have a tough time standing up to their president, because members of Congress could always use favors from the president, and a president who feels a member has been disloyal can always enact revenge. And this president particularly loves to twist the knife on someone he feels hasn’t been sufficiently loyal.
For the vast majority of elected Republicans, standing up to Trump amounted to conceding their next primary. Elected GOP officials who were frustrated with Trump could avoid openly objecting and keep serving or lose to a Trump loyalist in a primary or lose to a Democrat in the general election. Those were the options. It shouldn’t be that way, but that’s the way it is.
We Have No Olympics This Year, but We Get to See One Platform Dive
The Republican Party will go into 2020 with no formal platform, owing to the challenges of holding the traditional party platform meetings under the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, and declared simply, “the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” This is being widely mocked with headlines such as, “Republicans Announce Their 2020 Platform Consists of Supporting Whatever Trump Wants.”
There’s a catch here, which is that the party platform fights are entirely symbolic and not binding upon any of the party’s elected officials. Nothing that happens in them affects any real-world policies; they’re like Dungeons & Dragons for ideological diehards. (The 1996 Democratic Party platform sounds downright conservative by the standards of today, declaring illegal immigration to be intolerable, determining to balance the budget, calling for middle-class tax cuts, expanding school choice and charter schools, making abortion less necessary and more rare, curtailing government, cutting regulations and wasteful programs, looking outside of Washington to solve problems, and saying that “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”)
Dyed-in-the-wool party activists get really fired up about the language in the party platform. Elected officials and most of the general public ignore the platform.
No matter what had been written in the 2020 GOP platform, Trump was going to do what he wanted — and most elected Republicans were probably going to go along with it, anyway.
But considering the state of the Republican Party, maybe it would be good to have a big, old-fashioned party-platform fight sometime soon. (Everyone whose opinion is “Whatever the president decides is fine by me, I trust him” can sit this one out.)
- Many Republicans aren’t as supportive of “free trade” as they used to be. What should the party consider to be a “good trade” deal? What specifically makes the U.S.–Mexico–Canada Agreement better than NAFTA?
- For a lot of good reasons, Republicans are a lot more critical of the Chinese government than they used to be. What should our policy be? Disengagement? Cold War–style containment? What steps should we take to broaden and strengthen an anti-China alliance?
- Silicon Valley is in the odd position of not having many friends anywhere on the political spectrum right now. Conservatives think Big Tech companies are suppressing and censoring their voices, and liberals think Big Tech companies aren’t suppressing and censoring their conservative voices enough. What, if anything, should the federal government do about this? Do Republicans buy that social media has grown to become akin to a public utility and should no longer be controlled by the policies of private companies? Do we think that Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, or other companies are monopolies?
- Does the Republican Party want to reform entitlements anymore? The president certainly has no appetite for making changes to Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid.
- We’ve tried a confrontational approach with North Korea, and we’ve tried showy, high-profile summits with Kim Jong-un. Neither approach seemed to get us very far. Now what?
- What do Republicans think of Russia?
- We know most Republicans hate what’s left of the Affordable Care Act. What do Republicans think is the best way to ensure people get health insurance? Do we want people to get it through their employers or not? If we want insurance to be more portable, and thus not through employers, how the heck do we make it affordable? The Bronze plans, which cover just 60 percent of health-care costs, currently average $434 per month for an individual.
Presidential primaries often represent de facto party-platform fights. If Trump loses in November, the next fight over what the GOP should stand for will start roughly the following morning.
ADDENDUM: An early ominous indicator: The 2020 Republican National Convention’s website still features “Frequently Asked Questions” about the security perimeter in Charlotte and, as of this writing, does not have the schedule of speakers.
You should join NRPlus if you haven’t already, because sometimes I get into discussions on the group Facebook page, and from those discussions, I end up writing thoughts that turn into Jolt sections . . .