It was once Paul D. Ryan’s party, built on the union of upright Middle American values and America’s competitive advantage in the world.
Now it’s Donald Trump’s — the nationalist, me-first team, willing to compromise on character, foreign policy and free-market economics if it brings a win.
In modern times, the Republican Party operated hierarchically before Trump. The presidential nominees were the obvious ones.
That changed in 2016 when Ryan, the obvious choice, the party’s young, energetic ideas man and its 2012 vice presidential candidate, declined to run, and Trump defeated a slate of vanilla alternatives to seize the nomination and the presidency.
Perhaps Ryan’s emotional announcement on April 11 that he will not seek re-election in 2018 is the prelude to a 2020 primary challenge. The Never Trumpers could be plotting a comeback, and who could doubt that in his heart, Ryan — who once said Trump “sickened” him — is one?
Watch: Three Questions About Ryan’s Future
For now, though, it seems like a retreat. Republicans may well take a shellacking this November, if the flood of other congressional retirements and the recent elections in Pennsylvania, Alabama and Virginia are any indication.
If any of this has given GOP lawmakers pause about whether or not to align themselves with Trump, they aren’t letting on.
Ryan, notably, did not use his announcement to distance himself from the president, and during the time he’s led the House, and Trump the executive branch, they have worked hand-in-glove. The story of Ryan’s speakership is one of accommodation with the party’s clear leader.
The high-profile defections — think Jeff Flake and Bob Corker — remain the exceptions to the rule. Even amid rumblings that Trump may be preparing to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to end his election probe, many doubt the GOP would stand up to the president.
A day after the FBI’s April 9 raid of the office of Trump’s personal lawyer raised concerns anew that the president would seek to end Mueller’s investigation, Ryan’s Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said he saw no need to pass legislation to protect the special counsel.
“I haven’t seen a clear indication yet that we needed to pass something to keep him from being removed because I don’t think that’s going to happen,” McConnell said.
If not a constitutional crisis, Mueller’s firing would at least prompt a public relations mess for the Republicans, with the 2018 midterm elections looming. But GOP lawmakers thus far have given no indication they plan to do anything but live or die at Trump’s side.
And despite their unexpected loss in March’s Pennsylvania special election, Republicans aren’t running from Trump in their campaigns. They are, for the most part, running with him, even as the dual legs of the coalition that have propelled the party for decades — social conservatives and business-minded ones — remain steadfast.
A party under control
After Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly defeated Rick Saccone on March 13 to win a once solidly Republican Pennsylvania House seat, party leaders dismissed the loss as an anomaly and argued that Trump’s efforts to bolster Saccone had helped him rather than hurt.
Ryan was among Trump’s defenders. “The president came in and helped close this race,” he said the day after the vote.
A survey by The Economist and pollster YouGov taken in the days following the election didn’t contradict that reasoning, but neither did it confirm it. (The Economist Group is the parent company of CQ Roll Call.)
A fifth of the respondents to the poll said they believed opposition to Trump was a factor in Lamb’s win. The rest either weren’t sure or thought the election had hinged on the quality of the candidates, with Republicans most likely to say Saccone was to blame.
Rank-and-file Republicans in Congress mostly agreed with Ryan. Rep. Chris Collins, an early Trump supporter in 2016 who’s in his third term representing a rural New York district between Buffalo and Rochester that Trump carried by 25 points, said he’s still “running solidly with the president.”
GOP representatives from districts that could be more competitive, like Long Island’s Peter T. King, say the lesson from Pennsylvania was not to abandon Trump. “If he had run in that district, he would have won,” King said. “His popularity is not automatically transferable.”
Even the New Jerseyan Leonard Lance isn’t criticizing Trump, though his district — which stretches from the New York City suburbs to the state’s western border — went narrowly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and he faces a well-funded challenge from former Obama administration official Tom Malinowski.
Lance said the lesson for representatives like him is to play up their independence. “I am one of the 10 Republicans who doesn’t necessarily vote with the president,” he said. “I intend to stress my voting record.” Among Lance’s breaks was his May vote against repealing the 2010 health care law.
A GOP candidate who criticizes the president risks inspiring a primary opponent, or having his base stay home. Embattled Republican candidates may not be able to win with Trump, or without him.
But there could be a silver lining. By sticking with Trump, Republicans have forestalled the intraparty conflict that once had them on the verge of a crackup.
From the rise of the tea party in 2010, to the Freedom Caucus-led ouster of Speaker John A. Boehner in 2015, to Trump’s divisive primary campaign two years ago, the Republican Party was tearing at its seams.
Now Ryan is departing on his own accord. No coup toppled him. And whomever Republicans choose to replace him will either lack the stature to rival Trump atop the party or won’t want to.
A convenient truce
On Capitol Hill, squabbles continue over immigration, tariffs, gun control, foreign policy and, of course, federal spending, but the GOP caucus is in a state of relative peace, while social conservatives and the business community continue to back the party.
Trump’s victory calmed GOP rebels, said Daniel DiSalvo, a professor at the City College of New York who studies party factions. “I think the big change is the party control,” he said. “When the Republicans only had the House, they were trying to push Boehner in a certain direction, and drive a tougher bargain with [President Barack] Obama. Now the terms of debate are different because they control everything.”
The Freedom Caucus, the far-right faction, has made some noise, but has picked its battles. In March last year, many of its members threatened to oppose a bill to repeal the 2010 health care law, arguing that it merely replaced Obama’s subsidies for lower-income people with tax credits. But when the House finally voted in May, the caucus voted “yes,” citing provisions that would have allowed states to seek exemptions.
The caucus has continued to oppose government spending bills, and most of its members balked at the deficit-increasing budget deal McConnell reached with Democrats in February. But they let Ryan push it through the House with Democratic votes.
Mark Meadows, the North Carolinian who led the effort to depose Boehner and now heads the caucus, said repeatedly that his members did not foresee challenging Ryan’s leadership.
In the majority, Republicans must govern, and to succeed, they’ve got to have their various factions, and Trump, working together.
The budget vote excepted, Democrats have offered the GOP little help. Republicans have made up for it by sticking together on votes that have split the parties. Overall, in 2017, the average Republican voted with his or her party 95 percent of the time, and sided with Trump by an equal percentage on issues on which the president expressed a preference, vote studies show.
The known members of the Freedom Caucus were even more loyal to the party (96 percent), while slightly less helpful to Trump (91 percent) than the average House Republican. During the 2016 campaign, many caucus members preferred Trump’s opponent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and shared Cruz’s fear that Trump was a closet liberal who wouldn’t respect Congress’ power.
Back to business
But Meadows said Trump has won them over with his focus on “less taxes, more jobs and less regulation.” Notably, Trump also threatened to back primary challengers to caucus members last year when they talked about holding up efforts to repeal the 2010 health care law.
Whatever the cause of their conversion, it behooves Republicans to speak with one voice now, Meadows said. “Everybody that supports the Trump agenda will have a unified message going forward, and to that extent I think that that’s a plus.”
In 2017, Ryan had more trouble keeping his moderates in line. Known members of the Tuesday Group of centrist Republicans voted with their GOP colleagues on party-splitting votes 88 percent of the time, and with Trump by the same margin.
That makes sense, since it’s Trump who has guided the GOP agenda, and moderates are the most likely to face voters skeptical of the president.
Despite their personal distaste for Trump, Ryan and McConnell have focused on the legislation that the president wants. That includes both issues that unite Republicans, like last year’s tax overhaul, but also ones that split the party, as with this year’s focus on immigration and legislation to make it easier for sick people to gain access to experimental drugs.
Meanwhile, with the exception of last year’s Russia sanctions law, the leaders have put aside issues that Trump opposes, such as bipartisan criminal justice legislation and, more recently, proposals to roll back Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs.
In some cases, Trump’s position has seemed to bring Republicans together, as in January when Congress reauthorized a controversial government surveillance authority that allows the government to, in some cases, read Americans’ emails and text messages and listen to phone calls without a warrant. Trump wanted the power extended permanently. The new law provided a six-year extension with few new civil liberties protections.
By contrast, in 2015, Republicans led the successful campaign to bar the government from continuing to collect data on Americans’ phone calls when that authority came up for renewal.
The GOP coalition has held, not only within Congress, but outside, among key constituency groups. The religious right has famously put aside its concerns about Trump’s personal ethics, to herald his policies as the most conservative since Ronald Reagan.
After Lamb’s win in Pennsylvania, Tony Perkins, the president of the socially conservative Family Research Council, warned supporters of a “deliberate effort to try to discourage evangelicals from voting and being involved,” citing the media focus on Trump’s alleged affair with the pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels.
If evangelicals don’t come out on Election Day, he warned, they’ll surrender “a rare opportunity these next two years to continue profoundly changing this nation for the better.”
And the business community, while annoyed with Trump’s tariffs and skittish about the possibility that he’ll withdraw from trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, is nonetheless walking in lockstep with the GOP as the 2018 elections approach.
Speaking to business leaders in January, Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he took heart that 2018 would go well, given the GOP’s unexpected election victories in 2016. “They said there was no way we could keep pro-business majorities in the House and Senate,” he said. “And no one expected a businessman in the White House.”
Of the top 10 business political action committees, all are giving Republican candidates the majority of their donations, with the level of favoritism ranging from the 53 percent of contributions from the Credit Union National Association to the 68 percent of United Parcel Service. None has significantly changed its apportionment in 2018.
“They don’t have much of a place to go,” explains Bob Walker, the Pennsylvanian who served as chief deputy Republican whip during 10 House terms before becoming a lobbyist. “The Democrats, if anything, are moving further to the left, which scares business.”
A question of returns
Republicans believe the tax overhaul, along with their unprecedented push to roll back regulations imposed when Obama was president, is propelling the economy to heights that will make the party tough to beat.
In their campaigns, Republicans are touting their closeness to Trump. Even with Republican Ed Gillespie losing the gubernatorial race in Virginia after adopting Trump’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration, Corey Stewart is pursuing the same line of attack in his bid to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.
Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Arizona sheriff known for his crackdowns on unauthorized immigrants, is polling well in his campaign to replace the retiring Republican Jeff Flake in the Senate. He’s running as a Trump disciple.
In her Tennessee gubernatorial bid, Diane Black, the former Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, has picked up Trump’s attack on National Football League players who’ve refused to stand for the national anthem to protest racism.
On the big issues, so far as Republicans are concerned — taxes, regulation and the judiciary — Trump has given them exactly what they wanted and, in return, they’ve proven willing to tolerate his acts of sacrilege, like the tariffs he imposed on steel and aluminum in March, if not to give him the loyalty and adulation he craves.
And despite Trump’s penchant for bellicose rhetoric, he’s followed through on none of his most divisive campaign promises, even in cases where he has the power to do so. The United States remains a party to NAFTA, for example, and there has been no unusual crackdown on unauthorized immigrants in the interior of the country.
While Trump’s negotiating style is unnerving, Republicans say, they’ve come to recognize that he often stakes out extreme positions before moving back to the center.
“If it goes too far, we’re not going to support it, but I think we now understand what we’re getting with a President Trump, which is the art of the deal,” said Robert Romano, vice president of Americans for Limited Government, an advocacy group that’s sparred with the president over gun control and government spending. “When he gets to the end of that process, he’s coming out with conservative policies.”
For advocates on the right like Romano, there’s little thought anymore that Trump might prove a centrist, or even a liberal, in office, as was feared during his campaign.
The GOP coalition has coalesced around Trump, and even if it’s not strong enough this November to retain control of the House and Senate, the irony is that Trump’s version of Republicanism wins either way.
If Republicans overperform in an election billed as a referendum on his presidency, he’ll rightly call it a mandate. If a Democratic wave engulfs the GOP, those most likely to lose their seats are the Republicans most independent of Trump, like Lance.
Already the conscientious objectors and Never Trumpers — a compromised Ryan clearly not the bravest among them — are retiring from Congress, leaving behind a GOP caucus more uniformly Trumpist.