Most observers of the American political discourse would probably agree that President Donald Trump is reshaping the Party of Lincoln in new and profound ways. Already, the president has dealt several stunning rebukes to the party’s establishment: from gatecrashing the Republican primary, to filling his administration with “Democrats” Like Gary Cohn and Steve Mnuchin, to threatening the status quo of international trade.
But as Bloomberg points out, Trump’s push to foment a GOP revolution has come back to haunt him as his administration strains to pass what would be the first comprehensive tax-reform bill in 30 years. Trump had courted a rebellion – and now he’s got one. But instead of the party wholehearted embracing Trumpism, establishment Republicans like Bob Corker and Jeff Flake – both of whom have opted not to run again as they feud with the president – are positioning themselves as obstructionists of the Trump agenda.
And given the Republicans’ razor-thin majority in the senate, the two of them have nearly enough leverage to sink every major piece of legislation between now and the midterms. And in his surprise retirement speech, Flake promised to do everything he can to make Trump’s life hell. Meanwhile, Corker has accused Trump of pushing American to the brink of chaos.
Which is why Republicans must take seriously anonymously sourced reports about an adviser to McConnell saying tax reform doesn’t have much chance of passing – especially as Republicans have repeatedly shifted their expectations for whether they can get it done by the end of the year.
But beyond that, the question of what form the Republican party will take remains to be seen. Because while Trump has dealt a painful blow to the establishment, it’s still very much in control of the levers of power within the party.
What’s not clear is what would take the establishment’s place. One possibility is more Republicans in Trump’s image -- candidates backed by his former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who already has contenders for the two Senate seats. But many Republicans seriously question whether that kind of party can hold a majority in Congress, let alone recapture the White House in 2020. Trump’s current approval rating is 36 percent.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear that he will back the kinds of Republicans who he thinks can beat Democrats, rather than the more populist figures backed by Bannon, whose Breitbart News site cheered Flake’s retirement with a flashing headline that read, “WINNING.”
Trump’s opponents, for what it’s worth, are betting that the American electorate will sweat Trump out of its system like a fever.
Flake, who warned Tuesday on the Senate floor that Trump’s leadership is “dangerous to democracy,” said that he chose not to run for re-election next year because Republican voters will punish candidates like him who don’t go along with Trump.
To win, he said in a CNN interview, he’d have to run a “campaign that I couldn’t be proud of” because he’d have to pledge support to Trump.
“It’s not enough to be conservative anymore,” he said. “You have to be angry about it.”
Eventually, he said, Republican voters will come to see Trump’s behavior as inappropriate, but that hasn’t happened yet.
“I think that this fever will break,” he said. “Right now the vast majority of those who vote in Republican primaries seem to agree with the president’s behavior.”
Some Trump allies fear that Flake and Corker will give other lawmakers cover to loudly express their dissatisfaction with the president’s behavior.
“These are not mavericks,” Zelizer said of the two senators. “It creates space for others to speak out.’’
Although Corker’s seat is likely to stay in Republican control, Flake’s decision to not seek a second term in 2018 may help Democrats put the thin Republican Senate majority in jeopardy. Flake was facing a primary challenge from Kelli Ward, a former state senator who has the backing of Bannon. Ward lost the GOP Senate primary last year to Senator John McCain, who also has been critical of Trump.
The Democrats’ top candidate for Flake’s seat is Representative Kyrsten Sinema, considered a moderate. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up.
Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, who runs the party’s campaign arm, sounded hopeful Tuesday that Flake’s seat now will be ripe for a Democratic takeover. But Democrats would need to win a net gain of three seats next year to take the chamber, a daunting task given the many Republicans running in safe states.
While other senators are desperately trying to direct the public’s attention toward the party’s legislative priorities. Both Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell emphasized how productive the president’s meeting with senators had been, while in a tweet Trump described the meeting as a ‘love fest' and said everything had gone swimmingly, aside from Corker and Flake's denunciations.
The reason Flake and Corker dropped out of the Senate race is very simple, they had zero chance of being elected. Now act so hurt & wounded!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 25, 2017
The meeting with Republican Senators yesterday, outside of Flake and Corker, was a love fest with standing ovations and great ideas for USA!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 25, 2017
As Flake and Corker seared the president, the rest of the Republican Party largely ducked for cover, trying to steer the conversation back to their promised tax-cut plan. Most emerged from a closed-door lunch meeting with Trump saying the party remained focused on its tax mission.
“There were no fireworks,” said Republican Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas. “It was a positive and productive conversation all around.”
Trump is “very focused on delivering results," Cruz said. "A significant part of the conversation concerned tax reform. We have got to get that done. I believe we will get it done, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to reach agreement and bring the Senate together to reach consensus.”
But Tuesday began with Corker giving a TV interview where he said Trump should stay out of the tax debate and that his foreign policy could lead to a world war. Trump fired back, saying the senator couldn’t get elected “dog-catcher.” Corker retorted with a searing critique of Trump’s presidency, calling him untruthful and saying he was “devolving.”
The question of how Trump’s legacy will impact the Republican Party has been bandied about by politicians, political analysts and hysterical leftists who believe Trump’s election marked the beginning of the end for the Grand Ol’ Party. Julie Pace, the Associated Press’s Washington bureau chief, suggested as much in a column published last night, where she questioned whether “traditional” Republicans would survive the Trump administration, noting Trump's willingness to attack members of his own party almost as readily as he attacks Democrats.
That existential question, which has nagged at Republicans since Trump's stunning election one year ago, flared up anew Tuesday with Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake's announcement that he is retiring from Congress. One of the GOP's most consistent critics of the president, Flake was facing a tough primary challenge in next year's election from at least one candidate with the backing of some Trump allies.
"There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party," said Flake, a conservative who has worked with Democrats on issues like immigration and the Obama administration's detente with Cuba.
The senator's dour assessment of his future in the Republican Party gave voice to worries that have gripped the GOP heading into the midterm elections. Trump has shown little loyalty to some sitting senators, and has openly squabbled with Flake and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Some of the president's ardent supporters — led by former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon — are actively courting GOP primary challengers who are more willing to buck the Republican establishment in Washington than line up behind its leaders.
Of course, while the media has been eager to portray Corker’s and Flake’s decisions to leave office as selfless acts of resistance, let’s consider another narrative: With Steve Bannon already pushing candidates in both states that are well equipped to win their prospective primaries, perhaps the departure of the anti-Trumpers represents a capitulation of the Republican establishment to the forces of Trumpism – not an act of defiance.