Glenn Youngkin saved the Republican Party and helped save America’s democracy
Glenn Youngkin’s campaign for Virginia governor offered lessons for America’s political world. First, he showed a keen sense of where voters’ actual concerns lie — children’s education, public safety — and addressed them more meaningfully than did his opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Second, his focus was on Virginia’s present and future, not past national controversies. Third, following from the first two, he refused to be distracted by his opponent’s attempts to draw Donald Trump’s name into the campaign.
As for the former president himself, Youngkin avoided alienating Trump’s voter base, which is strong in rural Virginia, while keeping him at a respectful distance by never appearing with him at public rallies or even participating in remote, phone-in events with him. He scored points with moderate suburban voters by ignoring Trump’s caustic warning that “The only guys that win are the guys that embrace the MAGA movement. … They have to embrace it.”
Nor did he get drawn into Trump’s preoccupation with overturning the results of the presidential election, again addressing the way forward rather than stirring embers from the past. He studiously avoided Trump’s egregious suggestion that unless the 2020 election were re-investigated and “solved” to Trump’s satisfaction, Republican voters should boycott the 2022 and 2024 elections — a practice resorted to by desperate citizens living under foreign dictatorships and victimized by transparently sham “elections.” Invoking such a drastic action in this country was probably the most un-American remark a former U.S. president has ever made, disrespecting the most precious of Americans’ rights that undergirds all the others. After calling on his followers, and even his own vice president, to abrogate the constitutional process in January, Trump now urged them to abandon their most basic constitutional right, the franchise.
It was also an entirely self-destructive approach for the Republican Party, assuring that Democrats would win future elections by default. Trump seemed to be modeling his recommendation on his performance in Georgia’s senatorial runoff, where he so emphatically condemned the state’s electoral system as “rigged” and untrustworthy that Republican voters were dissuaded from bothering to vote. As a result, Democrats won both U.S. Senate seats and control of that legislative body to go along with their House dominance and the Biden White House. In his election-eve speech, supposedly endorsing the two Georgia GOP candidates, Trump preemptively rejected the argument he anticipated would be made: “Oh, well, Trump, maybe he wants it that way. … They’ll say, ‘He just conceded.’ No, no, I concede … I think we’re going to win.”
Given his Georgia behavior, its likely outcome and Trump’s own sense that he would be accused of throwing the election to the Democrats, it was astonishing that in Virginia he would explicitly call for GOP voters to abstain from participating in the 2022 and 2024 elections. Why would Trump encourage voter behavior that would result in the Democrats’ retaining both the House and Senate, and by even more decisive margins? One possible answer: While disastrous for Republican congressional candidates, it actually could work to Trump’s personal advantage. He could run in 2024 with the argument — potentially persuasive even to independents — that his return to power was needed to provide some balance to the government. He could assert, as he did at least once in 2016, “I alone can fix it.”
In any event, Youngkin stuck to his strategy of accepting Trump’s rhetorical support while maintaining a physical distance and keeping his name out of the campaign. Trump’s response — either because he felt slightly chastened by the reaction to his earlier remarks, or because he could see Youngkin’s momentum and wanted to be at the head of the parade — was to change his tune in his virtual rally on election eve. This time, he was unequivocally positive in his praise for Youngkin, calling him “a fantastic guy,” without criticizing him for not “embracing” Trump and MAGA enough.
Nor did Trump refer to his own ongoing bitterness over the 2020 election or repeat his earlier call for a GOP voter boycott of future elections. He even turned the argument against his critics, saying they sought to split him from his supporters to ensure that his “great and unprecedented Make America Great Again base will not show up to vote.” He did, however, get in one parting shot at Virginia’s voting system, saying he was “not a believer in the integrity of Virginia’s elections” and that Republicans must win by enough votes to overcome the “margin of fraud.”
Of course, when the results were in, Trump took credit for Youngkin’s victory. He certainly deserved a great measure of praise for allowing the candidate to manage his own campaign and for releasing his own followers to support him.
The question for Trump and the Republican Party is how he will conduct himself going forward. He remains a political force to be reckoned with. If he would act as responsibly in future elections, as he did on the final day of the 2021 election, he could help boost GOP prospects nationally in upcoming elections. The combined forces of the Trump loyalists and moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats would break the grip of the leftist fringe in American politics.
Trump could start the unifying process and reduce some of the rampant toxicity by dispensing with the use of one of his favorite terms — which, after he turned the GOP-controlled Senate over to the Democrats in January, applies more to him than anyone. He can restore the “h” in RINO and use the word henceforth to refer only to that large, thick-skinned horned beast in Africa and Asia. Or, he can revert to the destructive Trump posture in Georgia and the first Virginia rally and focus on his own grievances at the potential expense of GOP turnout and the prospects for its candidates in the House and Senate.
Trump has the opportunity to cement his historic legacy on China policy by ensuring that the next Congress and the next administration are led by Republicans who share his former national security team’s tough-minded approach toward China’s existential threat. Several of those Trump veterans, rather than Trump himself, would be well-positioned to regain the White House and to adhere to those transformative policies.
As a plaque that Ronald Reagan kept on his desk in the Oval Office read, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.” But a statesmanlike Trump could justifiably still claim credit.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.
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