By John Hart
Regardless of the outcome of President Trump’s impeachment trial, Republicans are ready to move on. Last week’s vote in which 70 percent of House Republicans decided to keep Liz Cheney in her leadership post, rather than ousting her for her allegedly disloyal vote for impeachment, showed that the dominant faction in the GOP are not Always Trumpers, or Never Trumpers, but After Trumpers.
On Fox News Sunday, Cheney spoke for the After Trumpers.
“We should not be embracing the former president,” Cheney said. “We need to make sure that we as Republicans are the party of truth, that we are being honest about what really did happen in 2020 so we actually have a chance to win in 2022 and win the White House back in 2024.”
“We are the party of Lincoln,” Cheney added. “We are not the party of QAnon or anti-Semitism or Holocaust deniers, or white supremacy or conspiracy theories.”
The GOP should take Cheney’s comments to heart and keep three points in mind as they build for the future:
- Rejecting Trump does not mean rejecting Trump voters
For parties interested in winning, losing candidates don’t get to set the agenda and dictate strategy. The notion that the GOP should build its future around a one-term president would be as absurd as Democrats pledging fealty to Jimmy Carter in 1981.
A common misconception among the most ardent Trump defenders is that criticizing the former president is somehow a betrayal of the 74 million Americans who voted for him. The opposite is true. Because Republicans care about and respect the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump, they owe it to them to learn from the mistakes from 2020 and do better. Losing the White House and control of the Senate is not in the interest of any Trump voter.
Moving on from Trump also does not mean ignoring his successes. In fact, it means ensuring that his successes are not reversed in full.
- Embrace principled populism
Populism in American politics is not going away. The challenge for Republicans is infusing populism with content and a portfolio of policy ideas that can produce results.
In 2005, my former boss U.S. Senator Tom Coburn presciently identified a “rumble” among the electorate. Voters were tired of the status quo and disappointed by Republican efforts to reform Washington after the 1994 Republican Revolution. We knew this rumble was not a doctrinaire conservative movement and that voters had to be persuaded to back limited government policies in areas like the budget and health care. Coburn did this with some success. He helped eliminate earmarks, passed bipartisan transparency legislation and mapped out GOP alternatives on health care.
In 2021, the GOP should embrace Coburn’s principled “populism with portfolio” and focus on substance, especially in areas in which the left is overconfident and prone to overreaching such as the environment. President Biden has already overreached with decisions like killing the Keystone Pipeline. If Republicans play offense and offer serious and credible solutions, they will put themselves in a position to be successful in 2022 and 2024.
- Make Congress great again
Looking to the president to set the national agenda is antithetical to constitutional conservatism. In the system of checks and balances our founders created, the executive branch doesn’t get to dictate policy to the legislative branch. Congressional Republicans need to assert their independence – and credibility – by proposing solutions, not merely opposing Biden and certainly not by waiting for a 2024 standard-bearer to emerge.
And Republicans who worry that the 2024 field doesn’t include any figure as exciting as Trump should look no further than Joe Biden to assuage their concerns. In 2020, the American people clearly favored the more pedestrian candidate over the one who offered a steady dose of drama.
Cheney may well have a tough primary fight in 2022 but the Always Trumper faction may be overreaching in Wyoming just as they did in Washington. This faction may want to follow their own advice and “listen” to the base.
In the past month, Republican voters, not merely members of Congress, are signaling their desire to move on. When asked before the election whether they described themselves as supporters of Donald Trump or the Republican Party, Republicans voters chose Trump by a margin of 59 to 30. Yet, in January, those voters now said they preferred the Republican Party over Trump by a margin of 48 to 38, a 39-point swing away from Trump. In the past month, GOP support for a Trump run in 2024 is down 20 points from 65 to 45 percent with a majority not backing a Trump run in 2024.
The fight for the future of the GOP is sure to rage on but unity may not be as elusive as it seems. By defining what they are for, and putting policy over personalities, Republicans can come together and win elections after Trump.