As conservatives and populists mix it up at CPAC in Florida, the future of the Republican Party looks murky indeed. Regardless of his loss in November, Donald Trump remains the largest figure in the GOP tent. One might even say that Trump is the tent — but that might be an overstatement, especially in the longer run.
Politico’s Marc Caputo writes today in his CPAC coverage that Donald Trump occupies the “only … lane that really matters” when it comes to the 2024 presidential primaries. The only choices in that cycle will be “Trump Ultra, Trump Lite or Trump Zero,” he quips:
Trump, the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, is the party’s undisputed leader at the moment, and for the foreseeable future. And whether he chooses to run again in 2024 or not, his outsized presence is likely to determine the shape of the primary.
“There isn’t a Trump lane. There’s a Trump Turnpike with multiple lanes and multiple people,” said Chris LaCivita, a veteran GOP strategist who most recently headed the anti-Biden super PAC Preserve America.
Conversations with more than a dozen Republican consultants, strategists and officials depict a party over which Trump exerts an irresistible gravitational pull, pointing to his continued strength in polls and the megawatt energy he generates among the GOP grassroots.
Trump’s grip on the Republican base and his effect on the minds of White House hopefuls is so total, they say, that the path to the GOP nomination is best defined by the degree of loyalty to Trump — to the point where party operatives reach for elaborate metaphors to best convey the extent of his influence.
That’s certainly true now, but this is still only February 2021. At the moment, party leadership is definitely being fought on those lines, as we saw in the awkward House Republican press conference earlier this week. One could even argue that each of the three top leaders lines up pretty well with Caputo’s calculation, with Steve Scalise as Trump Ultra, Kevin McCarthy as Trump Lite, and Liz Cheney as Trump Zero.
And the direction of the party is still being contested on that basis, no doubt. Texas’ Chip Roy wants to start another fight with Cheney over her remarks that Trump shouldn’t be part of GOP leadership:
Disgruntlement over Liz Cheney’s leadership position renewed after her comment yesterday that Trump shouldn’t be part of GOP future. Chip Roy during House Freedom Caucus presser: “Yesterday, Liz forfeited her right to be chair of the Republican conference” pic.twitter.com/V5d57cLnXh
— Emily Brooks (@emilyelarsen) February 25, 2021
John McCormack reminded his followers that Roy had a different perspective last month:
Chip Roy in January: Trump “deserves universal condemnation for what was clearly impeachable conduct—pressuring the vice president to violate his oath to the Constitution to count the electors." https://t.co/qictNJ3t0X
— John McCormack (@McCormackJohn) February 25, 2021
Anyway, Caputo’s right that the party is split like this now. In two years, things might look very different. In the first place, Trump might have some legal woes that would preclude his playing much of a part in the next presidential cycle. He’s also 74 years old, and as vital as he might be at the moment — Trump has more energy than most men his age or anywhere near it — that’s no guarantee that he can maintain that vitality for another run or even a round as kingmaker. Finally, Trump’s exile from social media has had a very large impact on his ability to directly impact the news cycle and soak up attention, with CPAC being his first big public event since, er … January 6th.
Also, political parties do not long define themselves by individuals. Ronald Reagan was a long exception to that rule, but even that was only aspirational. The Bushes took over leadership of the GOP after Reagan, and while they had their own merits and demerits, calling them Reaganites would be a stretch. Barack Obama came to the presidency by riding his own cult of personality, but that didn’t even last to the end of his term — the Clintons took the party back in the final year, for better or worse. (Almost entirely worse, as it turned out.)
But even if Trump doesn’t last that long as a leader in the GOP, “Trumpism” — or better yet, conservo-populism — is here to stay. Trump didn’t invent it; he was the first who could speak to it and make that longstanding faction of electorate feel as though it had a champion. If Republicans want to keep winning elections, they have to find ways to keep them engaged without tipping over into mob-rule populism, an example of which we saw on January 6th.
That requires someone with enough credibility to speak to all lanes, rather than get into an internecine fight for supremacy, as we are seeing with the Cheney fight. Who in the GOP can do that? The Washington Post sees Mike Pence as perhaps the quiet favorite … at the moment, anyway:
The former vice president is not quite back out on the speaking circuit just yet – and declined an invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference next week, where former president Donald Trump is expected to position himself as the potential 2024 nominee, or, at least the party’s kingmaker.
But his appearance before the Republican Study Committee on Tuesday to discuss winning back the House majority is a sign he’s seeking to chart his path forward as a GOP broker who can plausibly marry the two increasingly warring factions of the Republican party, as a traditional establishment Republican – who is also fluent in MAGA-speak after loyally serving Trump for four years. That’s a line he must thread carefully if he plans to run for president in 2024 – or hopes to hold any other political office in a world where Trump remains the country’s most popular Republican.
Pence’s strategy: “It’s the kind of merging of the [Make America Great Again] agenda with traditional conservative values,” a source close to Pence told Power Up. “He’ll tout the accomplishments of the last four years but also look forward to what a merger [between the GOP factions] might look like. We don’t have a lot of good surrogates from the administration out there right now so he’ll pick up the mantle.”
Pence’s RSC audience included members from both sides of the GOP schism that he’s hoping to merge – from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy.), who voted to impeach Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 mob, to members of the Freedom Caucus who still refuse to admit that Trump lost the election.
Pence might be the one leading figure that can actually sell the idea of marriage rather than divorce between these factions, having long experience in both the establishment and the Trump movement. It’s pretty clear that this is his plan; Pence’s decision to remain on friendly terms with Trump after the Capitol riot is not just sentimental, it’s strategic, and it’s long range as well. That is the kind of leader who might be able to pull the GOP out of its obsession with the past three months and shift the perspective to the next couple of years instead.
Are there others? Almost certainly, and Ron DeSantis might be even better positioned. The Florida governor is a sort-of outsider to Washington, having won three elections to the House, and has built a reputation during the pandemic as a contrarian — and a successful contrarian, compared to former media darlings like Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom in the gubernatorial ranks. DeSantis might be less able to speak to the other flavors of the party than Pence, however, and that could prove to be a problem down the road. It helps that DeSantis is well liked throughout the party, though, and perhaps a bit more charismatic than the courtly Pence.
The GOP will eventually move from personality to policy. The candidate who can best navigate that while preventing the alienation of those charmed by personality will succeed. And Republicans had better hope someone can pull that off, because a rump party shorn of its coalition partners will be dead in the water for several cycles to come.