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The GOP will not roll out a new party platform ahead of the 2020 presidential race, instead opting to declare fealty to President Trump’s agenda. So, what does the Republican Party stand for now?
Tim Alberta, chief political correspondent for Politico. Author, "American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump." (@TimAlberta)
On Frank Luntz’s answer to the question: What does it mean to be a Republican?
“It's important to realize that Frank Luntz has been the preeminent Republican Party messenger for the past generation. This is someone who, through his focus groups and his polling, has had the pulse of the Republican voter better than anyone. And it's his ability to translate that from around the country with the voters he talks with to the people in Washington who were in power, I mean, he has played such an essential role, you can't overstate it, in helping the modern Republican Party not just craft its message, but ultimately gain power. And so I continued to press him on it. And finally, he himself grew a bit exasperated and he said, ‘Look, I've tried to answer this, but I can't. I don't know the answer. For the first time in my life, I don’t know the answer to this question.’
“Honestly, I can't remember a time in my life, and Frank said the same thing, that you just struggled so manifestly to come up with any sort of a coherent definition or description for a party. And so we laughed about it. And obviously, I don't have skin in this game. Frank does. He's a longtime Republican, and he sounded pretty worried about it.”
"I can't remember a time in my life, and Frank said the same thing, that you just struggled so manifestly to come up with any sort of a coherent definition or description for a party."
On President Trump’s conversion of the GOP into a cult of personality
“The Republican Party is the very definition of a cult of personality: That it is not an entity built around ideas. It is not an entity built around, you know, philosophical principles. There is no great organizing principle of the party. The organizing principle of the party is fidelity to Trump. And, you know, I can go back to the earliest days after he won the Republican primary, before he had even won the general election. And talking with members of Congress about their hesitancy to cross him, including members of Congress who had been highly critical and who had been outspoken about his behavior and his rhetoric, but who suddenly were beginning to fall very silent. And the conversations I had then foreshadowed the next four years of their relationship with Trump, and they all would say something to the same effect, which is that once they spent some time back home in their districts with their constituents, with the base, talking with these people, they came to understand that Trump had this almost supernatural connection with them, and that their loyalty to this president was stronger than any loyalty that they had ever had to their local officials, themselves included. And that the only thing that they could compare it to was a cult. If I had this conversation once, I had to have had it two dozen times. And what you began to see after Trump won the nomination — after he won the presidency, after he took office, it has only been strengthened day by day by day — is that intensity of feeling that so many Republican voters have for him. And as a result, their elected representatives, they show that same fidelity. They show that same intensity. They dare not expose any daylight between themselves and the president.”
On the significance of the GOP’s decision not to release a new platform in 2020
“There's nothing symbolically richer in making the argument, as I do in the piece, about the sort of intellectual vacuum in the Republican Party and how the party has become willfully, deliberately untethered from ideas; there's nothing that can so aptly demonstrate that as the dropping of the party platform altogether. And on the one hand, sure, a party platform is often just a sort of exercise in projecting. It is not a document that governs the party's every move; it is a statement of principles and philosophies and ideologies. That's true. On the other hand, there is a reason that hundreds and hundreds of party officials gather over a period of months and really fight — in many cases, fight ferociously — with one another over every bit of grammar and every turn of phrase in that party platform, because it does represent something and it does go into the history books. I mean, you can go back and find party platforms going back decades and decades and decades. This is something that is meant to stand the test of time as a snapshot of what a party was fighting for during an election year. And Republicans this year, they don't have anything to show for it.”
On what the Republican Party really stands for in the age of Trump
“My conversation with Brendan [Buck, a longtime Republican congressional aide] was pretty short, and he didn't need to do the same sort of soul searching that Frank Luntz did. Brendan took my question and kind of scoffed and said, ‘Owning the libs and pissing off the media. That's what we believe in now. That's what the Republican Party is all about. There's not much more to it than that.’ For some of your listeners who may be scratching their heads, that is shorthand, you know, ‘owning the libs,’ it has become the sort of colloquialism inside the Republican Party for this idea that anything that offends or irritates or alienates liberals or Democrats, progressives, anything that effectively, you know, you know, throws up a flag on social media or elsewhere, anything that is is sort of seen as a cultural wedge issue, then that is something Republicans will embrace. And you see that almost every day if you log on to Twitter or if you're watching Fox News, I mean, it has become central to the Republican DNA.”
"Brendan took my question and kind of scoffed and said, ‘Owning the libs and pissing off the media. That's what we believe in now. That's what the Republican Party is all about."
On the erosion of the GOP’s “bedrock principles”
“If you have a party that announces now, we don't need a platform; we don't need a statement of our vision; we don't need a statement of our principles; we don't need a statement of even our most aspirational, unrealistic goals. We don't need to put them on paper because nobody needs to know. What they need to know is that we are in power and that we support the guy in power and that what he's doing is the right thing. And we're going to keep supporting him. I mean, that's it. You can't overstate just how vacuous that is. And look, I think, just speaking as someone who's covered this for a long time, I think it's important to recognize that you have the broad strokes of conservative Republicanism, the core tenants that have been meant to inform the party's governance over a period of decades and decades. So, yes, limited government and free enterprise and, you know, family values, global leadership. I mean, certainly those are the bedrock principles of Republicanism.
“What you see now is, not only have the principles themselves really faded almost to a point of being unrecognizable, but there are just no specific ideas. There are no big policies to advance and to hold up to voters and say, we have a vision for fixing these problems. We have a vision for improving your lives.”
On why many Republicans went from Trump critics pre-2016 to stalwart supporters
“Self-preservation is the name of the game. And in today's Republican Party, if you are going to survive, if you are going to retain your influence and that proximity to power that I spoke about, you can not be anything other than completely loyal to President Trump. And this goes back to the earlier point: Into that intellectual vacuum that we've been discussing, there is really only one thing that fills it, and that is fidelity to the president — no matter what.”
"Into that intellectual vacuum that we've been discussing, there is really only one thing that fills it, and that is fidelity to the president — no matter what."
On the hushed discontent within the Republican establishment
“I'll be careful not to name names, but let me just put it this way: If you were to sit down with, you know, 50 of the most recognizable public-facing members of Congress and have this conversation with them about the sustainability of this approach, about the demographics of America and the challenges that confront a party that is drawing practically its entire electoral life force from the white vote, I would say that 40 of those 50 would tell you, yeah, this is trouble. This is this is really bad and it's getting worse. And we've got to do something about this. But I'm sure not going to put my neck on the line right now and and make any sort of dramatic, bold statement that's going to put a bull's eye on my back. Because most of these folks, it's important to realize, they consider themselves sort of long-term, three-dimensional chess players. They want to be a part of that next iteration of the Republican Party. They want to be around long enough so they can help to craft these solutions. And to them, wanting to be around justifies the silence and the enabling of Trump in this moment because it's going to help them keep their jobs.”
On the roots of Trump’s takeover of the party
“It's so foundationally important for any examination of Donald Trump's presidency and this era of our crazy, asymmetrical, disrupted politics to understand that this is not about Trump, ultimately; that Trump is not the cause. He's the consequence. He is the symptom. To your point, that Trump's ascent and Trump's ultimate takeover of the Republican Party was invited. You know, I always come back to this quote that I used in a story, a long feature story I wrote about John Boehner after he retired. And I used my book as well to demonstrate this. We were talking about this period of Boehner's speakership where he allowed the Tea Party renegades in his conference to push the government into a shutdown over this idea of defunding Obamacare — which was logistically impossible, they couldn't do it. All they could do was force a government shutdown to prove that they wanted to do it, but they couldn't actually do anything about the policy. And then, in that same summer, there was this massive fight over immigration and it was the closest the U.S. had come in decades and decades to actually passing a real, substantive overhaul of the nation's immigration system, something that had bipartisan support in the Senate. At the last minute, House Republicans got really cold feet and Boehner did not push forward with it because he was scared about losing his job. He was scared about being overrun by those Tea Party conservatives. And we talked about those two big episodes. But any number of others that were sort of central to this slow, creeping sense that the inmates were beginning to run the asylum, and ultimately they did run John Boehner out of power. He did lose his job as speaker of the House in a sort of coup d'etat. And the moral of the entire story, as Boehner's chief of staff put it to me at the time, he said, ‘Look, you can slice and dice this one hundred different ways. But ultimately, we fed the beast that ate us.’ And I think that that is about as appropriate a metaphor for this last 10 to 15 years of Republican politics as you could hope to find.”
As Boehner's chief of staff put it to me at the time... 'Ultimately, we fed the beast that ate us.’ And I think that that's about as appropriate a metaphor for this last 10 to 15 years of Republican politics as you could hope to find.”
From The Reading List
The Republican Party's resolution regarding its 2020 platform
Excerpt from "American Carnage," by Tim Alberta
Copyright © 2019 by Tim Alberta. Published with permission from Harper Books and HarperCollins Publishers.
Politico: "The Grand Old Meltdown: What happens when a party gives up on ideas?"— "Earlier this month, while speaking via Zoom to a promising group of politically inclined high school students, I was met with an abrupt line of inquiry. 'I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand,' said one young man, his pitch a blend of curiosity and exasperation. 'What do Republicans believe? What does it mean to be a Republican?'"
Business Insider: "Republicans will not adopt a new platform at this week's convention and will instead pledge to 'enthusiastically' support Trump" — "The Republican Party in a statement said it will not be announcing a new platform of policies to voters at this year's Republican National Convention, but will instead pledge to "enthusiastically" support President Donald Trump."
The New York Times: "For Conservatives to Have Any Hope, Trump Has to Lose" — "'You’re a traitor to the cause.' In one form or another, that’s the charge most often made against so-called Never Trumpers, a group of which I consider myself an early and unofficial co-founder. The well-being of both the Republican Party and conservatism, according to this line of thinking, requires supporting Donald Trump. To be against him is to be an apostate."
The Atlantic: "I’ve Witnessed the Decline of the Republican Party" — "I have been immersed in national politics in Washington for five decades. Over my time here, as an academic, a congressional staffer, a think tanker, and a commentator and public figure, I have gotten to know and worked with a wide range of key actors in politics and policy. I have seen up close the changes in our politics and culture. Nothing has been more striking or significant than the transformation of the Republican Party, from a moderately conservative party to a very conservative party to something else entirely."
The Wall Street Journal: "The Normalcy Of Trump's Republican Party" — "As the Republicans assemble — at least virtually — in their 42nd quadrennial national convention, in an unbroken chain that goes back to 1856, observers will ask ominous questions about their party’s future. Does Donald Trump represent a sharp break in its nature and character? Will the party ever return to normal? Will Trump lead the party to disastrous national defeat?"
CNN: "The Republican Party has a tough choice to make" — "With few primary season challengers and strong support from his base, President Donald Trump easily emerged as the Republican Party's presidential nominee. As delegates prepare for their convention, where Trump will be formally nominated, CNN Opinion asked 11 contributors from across the Republican spectrum to weigh in on their visions for the future of the party."
This program aired on August 25, 2020.
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