Future of the GOP? The art, promise — and lesson — of politics
As conversations continue to circulate about the future of the Republican Party, naturally much of the focus has centered upon the ups and downs of the relationship between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former President Donald Trump. Following a similar trajectory as other relationships between President Trump and longstanding standard-bearers of the Republican Party, Sen. McConnell has, at various recent points, embraced Trump, distanced himself from him, condemned him, and signaled an openness to move past previous acrimony. Although it is unlikely that Trump and McConnell will soon be sharing lunch or campaigning together, a look at the history of American politics reminds us that even some of the iciest feuds can be quick to thaw.
Even for those who religiously follow politics, the haste by which rivalries can turn into allyships and even apparent friendships continues to amaze. This is true even for those who once squared off in presidential primaries, the political contests that often are the most caustic. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Trump, for instance, no longer trade tweets attacking each other’s wives, instead opting for close collaboration. Similarly, it was not long ago that now-Vice President Kamala Harris sought to deal a crushing blow to then-candidate Joe Biden’s presidential campaign: “That little girl was me.” And few who saw it can forget former Sen. Bob Dole, then 95, rising from his wheelchair to salute the flag-draped casket of his onetime sworn political rival (and later friend and confidant), President George H.W. Bush.
Although politics is, of course, infamous for its “made-for-TV” clashes and its biting (and frequently ad hominem) exchanges, it is often just as much the story of leaving grudges behind and collaborating when shared priorities emerge. The more cynical among us may choose to cite this as evidence that politics is essentially performative, and neither the animosities nor friendships are particularly genuine or lasting. However, there is reason to take a different perspective.
Musicians are famous for their differences of opinion leading to permanent splits. The same has often been true of businesspeople. And writers are perhaps most famous for blood feuds stretching on for decades, whether it be Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre or, more recently, Paul Theroux and his former mentor, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul. In the latter case, decades of shared meals and close friendship was replaced by unreturned handshakes and a blistering tell-all book about a former confidant. One wouldn’t really expect that, as much, from a politician.
And in politics — even on the occasions when personal animosities do not morph into a genuine respect — the animosity hardly precludes collaborating when goals align. Take, for instance, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has been no stranger to offering caustic, ad hominem barbs directed at Trump, working with the Trump administration on behalf of his Save Our Seas (SOS) 2.0 Act aimed at reducing plastic debris in the oceans. At the bill signing in the Oval Office, Trump and Whitehouse shook hands, thanked each other for their respective contributions to the effort, and even alluded to other possible areas of agreement.
Although not a reconciliation per se, even a brief political ceasefire allows for the possibility of cooperation. And, as the Biden administration continues to get underway, one imagines that even some of President Biden’s most vociferous critics might find occasion to put tempers aside.
So, for those commentators suggesting that “Trump and McConnell will absolutely bury the hatchet if necessary and pretend like nothing happened,” there is likely much truth to that. After all, it happened with other past rivals from Sen. Cruz to Sen. Graham. Besides, one recalls the internecine effects of those political grudges that were never resolved, such as that of Lyndon Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy (what historian Jeff Shesol called “the feud that defined a decade”).
In his eulogy for the late Sen. John McCain, President George W. Bush quoted from the last line of McCain’s 1999 book Faith of My Fathers: “…and I moved on.” In politics — and in life — the ability to move on, including from personal acrimonies, is a skill of incalculable value. Although Bush situated that quote in the context of describing how “John was a restless soul. He really didn’t glory in success or wallow in failure because he was always onto the next thing,” it was just as true of the Senator’s choice of eulogists: the two men to have defeated him in major elections, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
So, today, in a culture that often prioritizes fixating on past gripes and long ago injustices, there is one lesson that politicians might be able to offer: that in this life, one needs to be able to get over things. And often we’re all the better for it.
Erich J. Prince co-founded and runs Merion West (@merionwest), a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization; he also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on how the news media covers politics. He previously served as a communications strategist for former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory. He studied political science at Yale.
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