“Trump has remade the Republican Party in his own image.” This has become a popular and self-serving narrative of Democrat operatives and liberal pundits. It’s the foundation of their electoral strategy for 2018 and 2020 based on the premise that an anti-Trump backlash will ignite a blue wave to sink him and the GOP together.
That’s possible. But political predictions are hazardous after the electoral shock of 2016. Just ask Hillary. Further, I’d challenge the claim that Trump is the soul of the GOP. For one thing there is no omnipotent, central Republican Party nor is there any universal agreement on what Republicanism is ─ or conservatism for that matter. Among the states, there are 50 individual Republican Parties, each with its own characteristics, agenda and constituents. A conservative senator like Ted Cruz can win election in Texas but probably not in Maine where liberal GOP Senator Susan Collins holds office. Nationally, there are 435 Congressional House Districts. In Colorado’s 6th CD, Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, still reliably conservative, has been able to hold his seat by moderating some of his positions to fit his constituents in a CD that has shifted from solidly Republican to marginally Democratic.
State-by-state and CD-by-CD, based on their beliefs and their personal election prospects, Republican incumbents and candidates differ on their association with Donald Trump. Some embrace him enthusiastically, some distance themselves and others equivocate or hedge.
It’s true, the Trump presidency and Republican congressional majorities have delivered well on traditional GOP and conservative goals like the placement of conservative judges and cabinet appointments, tax reform, strengthening the military, business deregulation, reigning in bureaucratic excesses, killing Obama’s feckless Iran nuclear agreement and withdrawing from the delusional Paris climate accords.
Other Trump actions like protectionist tariffs, a trade war, alienation of allies, pandering to Putin, and his goofy tweets and bombastic declarations have made traditional Republicans and conservatives cringe. On the other hand, Trump’s brand of gut-level populism has broadened his political appeal to crossover Democrats and independents, the very people who made the difference in his election and the same folks Hillary branded as “deplorables” during the campaign.
I also find a vital distinction between Trump’s core and his base. Recent polls show Trump’s approval rating among Republicans at about 85%. But that lumps together those that approve of him “strongly” and those that approve of him moderately. On balance, I’d say Trump’s enthusiastic core is about a quarter of the voting public. In the eyes of these “Trumpeters,” he can do no wrong. But they’re not all Republicans. Trump’s Republican core is smaller than his Republican base which includes mainstream Republicans like me. We approve of Trump but not without some reservations. While I understand the anger and frustration of Trump’s core and sympathize with it, I’m constrained by my conservative principles and by immutable constitutional and political realities. The combination of Trump’s core and his Republican base is what got him elected, and we need each other to form a winning coalition, including a GOP Congress, so that he can effectively govern.
Trump, a former Democrat, is new to the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan was also a former Democrat who left that party as it moved increasingly to the left. But Trump is no Reagan. As a Republican, Reagan was a principled, consistent and philosophical conservative. Trump’s marriage with the GOP was a matter of electoral convenience on his part. I believe he’s driven more by expediency and mercurial impulse than by any consistent ideological foundation. Trumpeters relish his “fighting” style. Personally, I think a skilled boxer like Reagan is more effective than a brawler like Trump.
In any event, all bets are off until the midterm elections. In November, if voters give Trump and the GOP credit for the reenergized economy, Trump may ride a red wave to reelection in 2020. Or, a blue wave in the midterms could flip Congress to the Democrats and immobilize the remainder of the Trump presidency, which the Dems are intent to engulf in an impeachment fiasco.
Trump may, indeed, succeed and remake the GOP or he may just turn out to be a one-off political aberration. If things go badly for him and his reelection prospects dim, he might even desert the GOP and run as a third party candidate in 2020. Who knows?
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.