Over the span of 12 hours, the entire dilemma of the post-Trump GOP was encapsulated in a call-and-response between Paul Ryan and former President Donald Trump.
At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. on Thursday night, Ryan had opened a speaker series billed as a conversation about the future of the Republican Party.
Trump replied by trashing Ryan from Mar-a-Lago the next morning, serving notice of how difficult that conversation may be.
After Ryan suggested that the conservative movement was about more than fealty to the defeated president, Trump called the former House speaker a “RINO” and a loser. And then Trump, the rare Republican who has criticized Reagan himself, went after Fred Ryan, chair of the board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
“Ronald Reagan would not be happy to see that the Reagan Library is run by the head of the Washington Post, Fred Ryan,” Trump wrote. “How the hell did that happen? No wonder they consistently have RINO speakers like Karl Rove and Paul Ryan. They do nothing for our forward-surging Republican Party!”
One year ahead of the midterm elections, and with the earliest stages of the 2024 primary already underway, Trump is still backseat driving the Republican Party at every turn. And every sign suggests that the GOP is still with Trump — and has little interest in the kind of introspection that Ryan and traditionalists like him are begging for.
Even the Reagan Library’s “Time for Choosing” series — named for Reagan’s famous 1964 speech — is likely to come with a heavy dose of Trump-ism. Ryan will be followed by a set of speakers more sympathetic to the twice-impeached former president: Mike Pence, the former vice president; Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state; Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador; and Sens. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Aside from Ryan, all of them are prospective 2024 presidential contenders. And the response that Ryan received from Trump will remind them of the necessity of calibrating their remarks for Trump and his base.
Two of the upcoming speakers, Pence and Haley, have already paid for their lack of total allegiance, and the field is so deferential to Trump that most would likely not challenge him if he runs again in 2024.
In Ryan’s case, it’s not just that he was critical of Trump. It’s that the direction he wants conservatives to take is not in vogue in the modern GOP. A large majority of Republicans still believe Trump’s lie that the election was rigged. The party has declined to conduct the kinds of election post-mortems that both parties have traditionally performed following electoral defeats — party leaders weren’t willing to have a public discussion about what role Trump might have played.
Nor did many Republican voters see much reason to. When asked in a CBS News poll recently whether the GOP’s strategy for 2022 should be to prioritize the party’s message — telling the public about policies and ideas — or efforts to change voting laws, 47 percent of Republicans prioritized changing voting rules over ideas.
That’s despite the party continuing to lose market share nationally. Since the 1990s, Republican presidential candidates have won the popular vote only once, in 2004.
Ryan — once one of the GOP’s brightest stars — is clearly cognizant of the party’s diminished standing, having run on Mitt Romney’s losing ticket in 2012. Without naming Trump, he said at the Reagan Library that it was “horrifying to see a presidency come to such a dishonorable and disgraceful end. So once again, we conservatives find ourselves at a crossroads.”
“If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality, or of second-rate imitations, then we’re not going anywhere,” he said, adding that Republican voters would “not be impressed by the sight of yes-men and flatterers flocking to Mar-a-Lago.”
That is a prediction shared by some other establishment-minded Republicans, many of whom take comfort in past examples of the party evolving — and relatively fast. At the prodding of William F. Buckley in the 1960s, the party did reform, distancing itself from racists and “kooks.” In the 1970s, Richard Nixon’s resignation — and the tumult within the party that followed — gave way to Reagan just six years later.
Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, a Trump critic who announced this month that he wouldn’t seek a second term, said recently that his “gut tells me that an overwhelming majority of Republicans are going to, over the next few years, begin to realize that there is a new way forward.”
Trump’s hold on the party was not pre-ordained, after all. It was only about five years ago that he lost the Iowa caucuses to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and if Trump doesn’t run again in 2024 — or if he’s felled by a criminal investigation — his hold on the GOP may loosen over time.
“It can happen relatively quickly,” said Tom Campbell, a former California Republican congressman and Reagan administration staffer who began collecting registrations last year for his new party, the Common Sense Party. “Many people did not know of Donald Trump before he ran for president.”
But so far, the prospect of the party breaking with Trump is not in evidence. In a spring-long purge of the unfaithful, Republicans have censured GOP lawmakers critical of Trump and removed one of his fiercest critics, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, from her post in House leadership.
In the past, successful efforts to change the direction of the party “really took the intellectual class of the party to… articulate an intellectual vision,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who was a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project before stepping down in December.
Today, he said, “That’s what’s missing. The William F. Buckleys of the world have been replaced by the Diamond and Silks of the world… All of the brain trust has essentially left.”
Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.
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