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Jonathan Bernstein

Five Notes on the Republican Party’s Future

The party’s direction continues to be the biggest story in American politics. Here’s what to watch.

A dilemma.

A dilemma.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

The biggest story in US politics right now continues to be the state of the Republican Party, and the bottom line is: It’s complicated. So it’s a good time to take a quick tour of developments within the party.

Item: A poll in New Hampshire has former President Donald Trump losing narrowly to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in a 2024 primary. There are two ways of looking at this poll. One is that it adds to the evidence, contrary to some speculation, that Trump is hardly a sure thing to win the nomination next time. The other? It’s one poll, in one state, more than 18 months before anyone votes. It tells us very, very, little. Oh sure, it lets us know that DeSantis has decent name recognition already. But remember: By the time voters turn out, every significant candidate will be well known. Bottom line: Be wary of anyone who tells you at this point that any candidate is a sure thing to win or to be an also-ran. (And yes, I’ve learned the second part the hard way.)

Item: Trump is taking credit for endorsing the winner in the Alabama Senate primary run-off. This is actually more about reporters than it is about the Republican Party. Trump had originally endorsed one candidate, then pulled his support and switched to the polling leader. He did a similar thing in the Pennsylvania governor’s primary, with a very late endorsement to a big polling leader. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with endorsing sure winners. It’s part of politics. But any pundit or journalist who buys the idea that the subsequent results say anything at all about Trump’s strength within the party or among Republican voters is failing a very easy test. The truth is that Trump’s endorsements haven’t been very effective in moving voters during this election cycle (or, for that matter, previous ones). That doesn’t mean Republican voters don’t like him. They do. But voters usually like all of their party’s politicians.

Item: That Alabama nominee (and almost certainly the state’s future senator), Katie Britt, is 40 years old. Good job, Republicans! Last year it appeared that they’d be replacing retiring (and elderly) Senator Richard Shelby with someone over 60. All things equal, that’s generally a bad idea. The key to having a wide range of ages in Congress is to nominate plenty of young candidates, especially — as is the case here — for open, safe seats. I just wish Vermont Democrats had the same commitment to choosing someone who can grow into the job.

Item: Senate Republicans continue to be more open to compromise and, basically, acting like normal politicians during this Congress than many people expected. They’ve reached a deal on gun safety. There’s a bipartisan bill rolling out on insulin pricing. And there are small things, too. HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery reports that Montana Senator Steve Daines “heaped praises” on Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and her team for their response to flooding at Yellowstone National Park. It’s good to see a Republican senator acknowledge such help, because it indicates that the positive, healthy incentives built into the system are working. Too often, Republicans have acted as if any cooperation with Democratic administrations was a mistake because it would tend to make the president more popular and, therefore, cost Republicans in the next election. Such effects in truth are pretty marginal. But it’s good for their constituents if Democratic administrations have incentives to govern well even in states they won’t carry in the next election.

Item: Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who testified about his commitment to the rule of law and the Constitution before the Jan. 6 committee on Tuesday, turned around and said that, if the choice for president in 2024 came down to Trump and President Joe Biden, he’d vote for Trump, much to the (understandable) consternation of many Trump opponents. A few things about this. First is that Democrats should recognize that Trump creates almost impossible dilemmas for Republicans. Second, many Republicans have yet to find any way out of that dilemma. Third is that all of this was entirely predictable (and predicted) back in 2015 and 2016, and Republicans should have realized it and dealt with it back then. And fourth is that US democracy needs all the support it can get. Pro-democracy forces should therefore take whatever allies they can find, for as far as those allies are willing to go.

Would it be ideal if folks such as Bowers were prepared to take a strong anti-Trump position, and were willing to completely purge any trace of anti-democratic feeling from the party? Of course. But real-world politics isn’t about ideals. What Bowers did when it mattered counts, and how he spoke up about it counts. Whether he’s able to be as strong an ally as one might wish or not.