The Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump
Republicans are mulling what direction their party will take from here, now that it is finally crystal clear President Trump will leave the White House in January.
Two big questions dominate. Firstly, what kind of role will Trump himself seek? Secondly, is the more populist and nationalist direction he has pursued the right one for the future?
“I think it is the biggest question in American politics right now. Does the party continue down the path of Trump’s worldview or does it recalibrate as a more traditional conservative party?” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who worked for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign.
Conant, like other Republican figures who spoke to The Hill, said it was too early to answer this fundamental question.
A number of factors are swirling as the GOP casts around for the best way forward.
Trump in the end lost by a much more decisive margin than appeared to be the case on election night. President-elect Joe Biden defeated him by about 4 percentage points and 6 million votes nationwide. Biden’s Electoral College win was clear, even if it was decided by somewhat tighter margins.
Trump is now the first incumbent president since George H.W. Bush in 1992 to lose a reelection battle.
On the other hand, Trump received around 74 million votes, the highest-ever total for a GOP president or nominee. He outperformed the predictions of opinion polls.
Trump may be the most divisive president of modern times with the nation at large but he is by far the most popular Republican in the country with the GOP base. In the most recent Economist-YouGov poll, conducted Nov. 15-17, 91 percent of Republican voters viewed him favorably and 88 percent approved of his performance in office.
Trump might seek another term in the White House in 2024. If he did so and won, he would be 78 years old at his second inauguration — the same age as Biden now.
Even if Trump ultimately decided against such a run, floating the possibility would be an obvious way to maintain relevance and stay in the national spotlight. It would also freeze much of the rest of the 2024 GOP field.
“I just can’t see him walking away,” said one Republican strategist with ties to the White House. “He loves being the focus of American life.”
Others suggested that the mere fact of his leaving office would significantly diminish Trump’s influence.
The immediate direction of the party is “going to be affected by how much influence he still has when he is no longer the most powerful person on earth,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “The dynamics will be very different. We will see how much of a hold he can retain on his supporters when he no longer has the power of the presidency.”
Trump has changed the party in ways that will not be easily rolled back. His protectionism on trade, his hard line on immigration and his general skepticism about multilateral institutions — and American military adventuring overseas — all represent significant breaks with Republican orthodoxy.
There is little evidence these changes are unpopular with Republican voters. Trump won more electoral votes while losing the presidential race than GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, and his loss was not the blowout the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) suffered to President Obama in 2008.
The Republican Party also performed better than expectations in Senate and House elections this year, greatly undermining the idea, pushed by Trump’s critics, that he was leading the GOP to electoral ruin.
“He absolutely has shifted the party, fundamentally, in a good way,” said Brad Blakeman, who served on the senior staff in former President George W. Bush’s White House.
Blakeman acknowledged, however, that Trump’s fiercely aggressive personal demeanor was ultimately a turn-off to many voters. The most likely next step for the party, he argued, would be a broadly Trump-like policy agenda tempered by more palatable presentation.
“The rhetoric is going to be toned way down, although the need to be aggressive in policy is not a bad thing,” Blakeman said. “Plain speaking is not a bad thing.”
Speculation is already swirling around possible 2024 GOP presidential contenders, if Trump does not run.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is often mentioned as a possible inheritor of the Trump mantle, without the tempestuous personality traits. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who also served as U.S. ambassador to the United States under Trump, could appeal both to the Trump wing and more traditional elements in the party. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) also has his fans.
But among party strategists, there is concern about a Republican Party that has been remolded in Trump’s image. They worry about a weakening position in the electorally-crucial suburbs of America as much as anything else.
“I think the takeaway from this election is that whoever wins the suburbs is going to win the White House for the foreseeable future,” said Conant. “We have divided government because neither party has a consistently winning message in the suburbs — and that is the challenge for Republicans over the next few years.”
Ayres noted that Trump had accelerated a shift in which Republicans grow weaker in the suburbs but have an even firmer hold than before on rural areas and small-town America.
But, he cautioned, “clearly, trading fast-growing suburbs for slower-growing rural areas is not a good long-term bet.”
One thing is for sure. The Trump era will reverberate for a long time within the GOP. And there is no guarantee it will end when he leaves the White House.
“We will never go back to being the traditional Republican Party, because of the populism that has arisen in America,” said the GOP strategist with White House ties.
“They don’t want conventional politicians.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.