Putting the GOP “Civil War” in Perspective

AW
February 24, 2021

The degree to which folks continue to view American politics through the Trump prism is both understandable and frustrating. On the one hand, despite losing the election, the former president has remained an omnipresent figure in our daily lives. He spent almost every day from November 3rd until January 20th attacking the integrity of the election, browbeating state officials and tweeting out various conspiracy theories. January began with an attack on the U.S. Capitol and ended with Trump's impeachment. Early February was occupied with the Senate trial. As Katie Rogers wrote in the New York Times, this past weekend was the first in more than four years where Donald Trump wasn't the story. 

However, that weekend reprieve was short-lived as Trump will take the stage on Sunday in Orlando at the annual CPAC conference. And, once again, the political conversation will revolve around GOP infighting and the challenge for Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell to put Trump in the rearview mirror. In an attempt to pre-but that narrative, NRSC Chairman Rick Scott sent out a memo on Tuesday declaring that while "a parade of pundits and even Republican voices suggesting we should have a GOP civil war...This does not need to be true, should not be true, and will not be true." Of course, just because the leader of the campaign arm of the GOP Senate committee declared that "the Republican Civil War is now canceled" does not make it so. 

However, before we declare that the GOP is in free-fall, it's important to remember we are only ONE MONTH into Biden's first term. We are more than 20 months away from the midterm elections. Trump's role in 2022 could be a definitive issue in the next election. Or, it may not be. I don't mean to sound snarky. But, honestly, we need some perspective here.

First, history tells us that Democrats will have a tough time holding onto their already narrow House majority next year. Only once in more than 80 years has the party in the White House NOT lost seats in a first-term midterm election. This is true even when a president is relatively popular. Pres. George HW Bush went into the 1990 midterms with a 58 percent approval rating. His party still lost nine seats. We are also in a redistricting year where Republicans will have the upper hand in drawing district lines in key battleground states. 

A midterm election is not a contest between two different visions for America; it is a referendum on the sitting president and his party. The party out of power is unified not necessarily in what they are for but what they are against, namely the other side's policies. Pre-Trump, Republicans were unified by their shared dislike of President Obama and Hillary Clinton. The 2016 election may have divided the Democratic Party, but two years of President Trump brought them back together in time for the 2018 midterms.  

On the Senate side, most chatter has been about the role Trump purity tests' will play in open seat primary contests. We know that Trump is eager to exact revenge on those members who supported impeachment. And that he loves watching politicians clamor for his attention and endorsement. This has led to lots of speculation that 2020 will be a redux of 2010 and 2012 when the GOP blew multiple pick-up opportunities by nominating the 'wrong' candidate (think Sharron Angle in Nevada or Todd Akin in Missouri). But, Democrats can't afford their own bruising primary contests—or flawed nominees—in opportunity states like Pennsylvania. 

Then there is the issue of the stimulus. The White House has been eager to highlight polling that shows the $1.9T package popular with voters. A recent Gallup poll found President Biden with a solid 67 percent approval rating on his handling of Coronavirus. But, good polling today is not a guarantee of popularity in the future. Voters need to believe all the money being spent on testing and vaccine distribution and mitigation has been successful. 

They also want to know it is doing was intended to do. 

For example, here's how CNN reported on a recent call the White House had on the stimulus with reporters. "Asked during a call with reporters whether states could use the funds to offset declines in tax revenue spurred by the pandemic, a senior Biden administration official did not clarify. The aid is intended to be flexible, an official told CNN later." The term 'flexible' can be open to a lot of different interpretations. And, not all those interpretations may be popular. Given that Republicans have zero incentive to support the success of a program they feel was shoved through without their counsel or consent, they have every reason to highlight examples of waste or misuse of stimulus funds. 

Donald Trump has been such a constant in our lives for the last four years that's it's hard to imagine our politics without him. Moreover, we've never seen a party, its voters and its elected leaders continue to enthusiastically embrace a candidate who lost re-election. But, it's also true that it is incredibly early to declare that he will continue to cast a defining shadow over the next election. Or even the next year. Democrats are in charge now. And, that means that their success—or failures—will be on the ballot in 2022. 

Image credit: Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA