Dan Balz painted a painful picture of what’s happening to the GOP already. “In New York, Wisconsin and Tennessee, what transpired highlighted the raging battle underway over the direction of the country, a struggle that seems destined only to intensify as the 2024 election approaches. The action came with such speed and from enough varying angles that, even for those paying close attention, it was sometimes difficult to absorb and process one event before the next took precedence. At this week’s end came dueling decisions from two federal judges who issued contradictory rulings late Friday about access to an abortion drug, creating a legal standoff over mifepristone that seemed destined for the Supreme Court. Americans may be exhausted by the turmoil and chaos of the Trump years, but there seems no slackening or pulling back. Each event in the past week seemed to reinforce the overall stakes. There could be more such weeks ahead. Each iteration of this past dizzying week was a reminder of how much the coming election in 2024 matters and how unsettled things remain.”
Trump faces more possible indictments, federally and in Georgia, which could add both strength and weakness to his political profile while further roiling the electorate. Republican legislatures continue to push boundaries on abortion, with legislation calling for bans after six weeks of pregnancy in contradiction of public sentiment. Racial politics remain at the forefront, and there seems no likelihood of a calming on that front as Republicans attack Democratic “wokeness” and Democrats fight against efforts to minimize the power and voice of Black voters.
For Republicans, last week’s news was almost uniformly bad, although some in the party probably do not see it that way. The damage inflicted by past and present actions continues to define a new Republican Party, one that has been consolidating power in many red states but vulnerable elsewhere— especially in states that could decide the next presidential election.
Trump’s arraignment last Tuesday in New York on criminal charges— however the case turns out— and his subsequent speech later that evening from his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, which was replete with lies, distortions and grievances, highlighted the degree to which the former president remains at once the dominant force in the Republican Party, a threat to democratic norms and institutions, and a compromised candidate for president in 2024.
Wisconsin voters showed again how damaging the Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade has been to the Republicans, no matter how fervently they had worked to make it happen. Tuesday’s decisive vote in Wisconsin, which flips the balance of power on the state Supreme Court from conservative to liberal, has profound implications not just for the state’s politics but also potentially for the nation.
In Tennessee, meanwhile, the expulsion on Thursday of two young, Black Democratic legislators from the state House took political retribution to a new level and, not incidentally, injected race into the politics of the moment in ways that were inescapable. After the March 27 killing of six people, including three children, at a Nashville school, and protests calling for action on guns, Republican legislators found a new way to shock the conscience by punishing two of the protesters by stripping them of their elected offices.
…There is no way to overstate how the Supreme Court has changed the political mood. The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has mobilized an army of voters, led by women— and often by younger women— but includes men as well.
…The political state of the country is calcified, as political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch wrote in The Bitter End, their analysis of the 2020 election— not given to big swings, but one in which small shifts can mean big changes. That is why each side sees every election now as a mini Armageddon.
A poll that Ipsos released yesterday show more and more people see Trump as a criminal— especially independents. And most Americans (53%) believe that Trump intentionally did something illegal in the New York hush money case. About one in ten (11%) say he acted wrong but it wasn’t intentional, and a fifth (20%) believe he did nothing wrong.
GOP pollster Frank Luntz is a key McCarthy ally, advisor and roommate/landlord. Yesterday, he wrote a NY Times OpEd, How To Make Trump Go Away. Don’t they all wish! Wistfully, he wonders why Trump still generates such loyalty and devotion and if “a different Republican [can] win the nomination in 2024 who largely shares Trump’s agenda but not his personality.” Participants in his focus groups of MAGAts “felt ignored and forgotten by the professional political class before Trump, and victimized and ridiculed for liking him now. Like Republican primary voters nationwide, the focus group participants still respect him, most still believe in him, a majority think the 2020 election was stolen, and half still want him to run again in 2024.”
“But,” he wrote, “there is a way forward for other Republican presidential contenders as well. It begins by reflecting more closely on Trump’s rule-breaking, paradigm-shattering campaign in 2016 and all of his unforced errors since then. It accurately reflects the significant attitudinal and economic changes in America over the past eight years. And it requires an acceptance that pummeling him and attempting to decimate his base will not work. Trump voters are paying laserlike attention to all the candidates. If they think a candidate’s mission is to defeat their hero, the candidate will fail. But if a 2024 contender convinces them that he or she wants to listen to and learn from them, they’ll give that person a chance. Neither Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz understood this dynamic when they attacked Trump in 2016, and that’s why they failed.
First, beating Trump requires humility. It starts by recognizing that you can’t win every voter. You can’t win even half of them: Trump’s support within the Republican Party isn’t just a mile wide, it’s also a mile deep. But based on my focus groups since 2015, roughly a third of Trump voters prioritize the character of the country and the people who run it— and that’s enough to change the 2024 outcome. It’s not about beating Trump with a competing ideology. It’s about offering Republicans the contrast they seek: a candidate who champions Trump’s agenda but with decency, civility and a commitment to personal responsibility and accountability.
Second, Trump has become his own version of the much-hated political establishment. Mar-a-Lago has become Grand Central Terminal for politicians, political hacks, lobbyists, and out-of-touch elites who have ignored, forgotten and betrayed the people they represent. Worse yet, with incessant fund-raising, often targeting people who can least afford to give, Trump has become a professional politician reflecting the political system he was elected to destroy. For more than seven years, he has used the same lines, the same rallies, the same jokes and the same chants. That’s perfectly fine for some Trump voters. But there’s a clear way to appeal to other Republican voters firmly focused on the future rather than on re-litigating the past. It starts with a simple campaign pitch along these lines: “We can do better. We must do better.”
Third, recognize that the average farmer, small business owner and veteran will hold greater sway with the Trump voter than the famous and the powerful. Having endorsements or campaign ads from members of Congress will generate less support than the emotional stories of people who, just like so many Trump supporters, were knocked down, got back up and are now helping others to do the same. They just need to be authentic— and be able to say that they have voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020— so the Never Trump label won’t stick. Their best message: the Trump of today is not the Trump of 2015. In other words: “Donald Trump had my back in 2016. Now, it’s all about him. I didn’t leave Donald Trump. He left me.”
Fourth, compliment Trump’s presidency while you criticize the person. Trump focus groups are incredibly instructive in helping differentiate between the passionate support most Trump voters feel for his efforts and his accomplishments and the embarrassment and frustration they have with his comments and his behavior. For example, most Republicans like his tough talk on China, but they dislike his bullying behavior here at home. So applaud the administration before you criticize the man. “Donald Trump was a great president, but he wasn’t always a great role model. Today, more than ever, we need character— not just courage. We don’t need to insult people to make a point, or make a difference.”
Fifth, make it more about the grandchildren. Millions of Trump voters are old— really old. They love their grandchildren, so speak specifically about the grandkids and their grandparents will listen as well. “We mistake loud for leadership, condemnation for commitment. The values we teach our children should be the values we see in our president.”
The looming debt ceiling vote is the perfect hook. The increase in the annual deficit under Trump ranks as the third-largest increase, relative to the size of the economy, of any U.S. presidential administration. Long before Covid, Republicans in Congress were told by the Trump White House to spend more— and that spending contributed to the current debt crisis. Trump will say he was fiscally responsible, but the actual numbers don’t lie. “We can’t afford these deficits. We can’t afford this debt. We can’t afford Donald Trump.”
Sixth, there’s one character trait that unites just about everyone: an aversion to public piety while displaying private dishonesty. In a word, hypocrisy. Until now, that hasn’t worked for Trump’s opponents, but that’s because the examples weren’t personally relevant to Trump’s voters. During his 2016 campaign, Trump condemned Barack Obama repeatedly for his occasional rounds of golf, promising not to travel at taxpayer expense. What was Trump’s record? Close to 300 rounds of golf on his own personal courses in just four years, costing hardworking taxpayers roughly $150 million in additional security. This may sound minor, but delivered on the debate stage, it could be lethal. “While more than half of America was working paycheck to paycheck, he was working on his short game. And you paid for it!”
Seventh, you won’t be elected with Republicans alone. The successful candidate must appeal to independents as well. In 2016, Trump promised his voters that they would get tired of winning. But he alienated independents to such a degree that they abandoned Republicans and joined Democrats, giving America Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2018, President Biden in 2020, and Majority Leader Schumer in 2020. Just one Senate seat in 2020 would have brought the Democratic agenda to a complete halt. Most of Trump’s endorsements in highly contested races in 2022 lost in a midterms surprise that few people (including me) anticipated. If Trump is the nominee in 2024, are Republicans fully confident he will win independents this time? The ex-president surely loses if Republicans come to believe that a vote for Trump in the primaries means the election of Biden in the general.
And eighth, you need to penetrate the conservative echo chamber. You need at least one of these on your side: Mark Levin, Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro, Newt Gingrich and, of course, Tucker, Hannity or Laura. Thanks to the Dominion lawsuit, we all know what Fox News hosts say in private. The challenge is to get them to be as honest in public. That requires a candidate as tough as Trump, but more committed publicly to traditional conservative ideology like ending wasteful Washington spending— and the ability to get it done. “Some people want to make a statement. I want to make a difference.”
… The cheerleading stops for many when asked to evaluate Trump’s ongoing public comments and behavior. In 2016, the campaign was about what he could do for you. Today, it’s about what is being done to him. If he becomes increasingly unhinged, or if his opponents focus on his tweets, his outbursts and his destructive personality, a sizable number of Republicans could choose someone else, as long as they prioritize core, time-tested priorities like lower taxes, less regulation, and less Washington.
Republicans want just about everything Trump did, without everything Trump is or says.
Except the tax cuts for the rich and the removal of woman’s choice and the attacks on and devaluation of democracy… are those important issues— even more some Republicans. Let’s see…
68% of American voters— including 51% of Republicans— want to see a tax increase on the very rich.
76% of Republican voters— like 79% of Democrats— oppose privatizing Social Security
71% of Republican voters (81% of all Americans) see corporate greed as a reason for inflation. 59% of Republican votes (like 73% of all Americans) say Medicare should be allowed to negotiate fair drug prices.
43% of Republican votes, like 65% of all Americans— think assault weapons should be banned.
41% of Republicans— like 62% of all Americans— say same sex marriage should be protected by law. 55% of Republican voters think Republican politicians are spending too much time targeting transgender people
40% of Republican voters disapprove of the latest court ruling against abortion pills (as do 72% of Americans); 40% of Republicans are concerned about the loss of legal access to abortion in their states; 35% of Republicans think abortion should be legal (period— as do 78% of Democrats and 62% of independents); 48% of Republicans believe in the right to contraception— even if their lawmakers don’t vote that way.