By: Kiley Roach
The Republican party is splintered into factions. Party leadership and rank and file members seem to be growing further and further apart in terms of their ideological standings and the arrangement of their priorities. In the past couple of days, we have heard from a number of speakers with heavy stakes in the operations of the Republican party. Bill Kristol, founder and former editor-at-large of The Weekly Standard, told students at the Washington Center how he became a vocal “Never-Trump” Republican, a minority camp in the party. On the opposite end, we heard from Sean Spicer, former Press Secretary to President Trump, who speaks as a disciple of Trumpian Republicanism. Immediately following his remarks, we heard from former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, who is a self-proclaimed “Lincoln Republican.” These three men are emblematic of the ideological splintering within the party today as a consequence of Trump’s election in 2016. If you asked each of these three men where the future of the party lies, specifically looking forward to 2020, they will each give a very different response. So, what does the future of this fragmented party look like knowing that its leaders are divided in their approach to maintaining the party’s success?
Some political analysts see Trump’s election in 2016 as a catalyst that will ultimately lead to the party’s demise. Claire Malone from FiveThirtyEight makes the claim that, “Many Republicans think Donald Trump’s nomination is… destroying any chance for growth [the party] once had and leaving the GOP to wither and die on Trump’s vineyard vines.” She adds that, “Trump is a one-man crisis for the GOP. The party has been growing more conservative and less tolerant of deviations from doctrine over the past decades, so what does it mean that a man who has freely eschewed conservative orthodoxy on policy is now the Republican’s standard bearer?” [Read More]
Interestingly, when presented with the idea that the Republican party as we knew it in the 1970s and 1980s is dying off, Spicer completely rejected the premise. He said, “I am not worried about the viability of either party at this point,” to students at the Washington Center. To support this idea that Trump’s leadership is no Achilles heel for the party, he vaguely cited a statistic claiming that, “Donald Trump has the highest approval rating within his own party than any other President in American history.” (According to Gallup polling data, Trump has the lowest approval rating among Democrats since the 1950’s at 8%, when Gallup started measuring Presidential approval and party identification in tandem. Although his approval by Republicans is high at 85%, Eisenhower takes first place at 88% approval. Where Spicer was correct was in his analysis that “party gap” in approval ratings is the highest it has ever been at 77% deviation between Republicans and Democrats, which more importantly illustrates the growing polarization between the parties). For Spicer, Pro-Trump Republicanism is the future of the party, not the end.
Directly following the candid words of Sean Spicer, the Washington Center students were introduced to Michael Steele. As former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, he was quick to establish his ideological positions and clearly show how they differ with those of the President and his disciples. “I like to call myself a Lincoln Republican,” he told us. “I go back to the beginning. I go back to the source. I believe that if you don’t have a strong foundation, you won’t have any conviction.” When asked if Steele felt that the Republican party had evolved (or perhaps even devolved, in his opinion) into the party of Donald Trump, he quickly responded, “Well, it is now.” He emphasized that Donald Trump is not a conservative, nor is he really a Republican, as far as preconceived notions of what Republicanism is. Steele is right, Trump has broken with issues that were once at the core of Republican ideology, and has managed to rebrand them as “Republican” approaches without unified support from party leadership.
The issues most commonly referenced as ideological “breaks” from the party are usually associated with the established Reagan-era policy positions that emerged throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s. Issues such as lowering taxes, increasing the national defense budget, holding formidable stances on crime and punishment, fiscal responsibility, and maintaining the individual’s right to personal privacy rose from the foundation of Republican principles. These central issues are embodied by Republican thinkers including the likes of Bill Kristol, a fearless opponent of Donald Trump. He is emblematic of what I call the “Reasonable Republican,” someone who harkens back to values like morality in politics and the principles of small government. If Spicer’s words were any indication, Republicans like Kristol are a dying breed. According to him, the Tea Party and pro-Trump factions deafen the cries of the Reasonable Republicans (whom you could also refer to as the Never-Trump Republicans) from the weeds of the party. These are the old guard, the “establishment” elites that Trump voters were so anxious to drain from the swamp that is Washington. In other words, the Republicans don’t need them anymore to stay in office. They need their energized, populist base to continue to vote in their favor in order to maintain political control.
This could mean something very interesting for Democrats in 2020. The Reasonable Republican voter will not have a tent to run under in the upcoming primary season. This is a wide-open opportunity for Democrats to appeal to a new base, to reframe key issues, and realign their platform. If the Democrats can find a candidate, it could be possible for Never-Trump Republicans to find a new home with the Democrats. Most would argue that the Republican party can only be sustainable if it is unified, which is true of any political party. Cohesiveness is power. The easiest, most realistic way that Republicans can unify moving into 2020 is to expel the most marginal faction within their party: the remains of the Reagan dynasty. The Republican party is the party of Donald Trump, after all.