Republicans try to have it both ways on Trump
A subtle distancing from the former president is not enough for the party
by THE EDITORIAL BOARD | OCTOBER 27 2021
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin at a campaign rally in Suffolk, Virginia, this week © Anna Moneymaker/Getty
Glenn Youngkin is the US Republicans identity crisis in microcosm. To win the governorship of Virginia, with its suburban moderates, the former private equity star is running as a mild, Chamber of Commerce conservative. At the same time, he winks and nods to a party base that still adores Donald Trump. He neither shares a stage with the former president nor actively renounces him. He worries about the integrity of ballot machines without claiming that Trump was swindled out of a second term.
His Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, mocks this coy little dance. Barack Obama has done the same. But if Youngkin wins next Tuesday, or even comes close, Republicans will sense they have a template for the 2022 midterms.
They will need one. The aroma of the last administration is not abating. Last week, Congress found former Trump aide Steve Bannon in contempt for ignoring a subpoena about the Capitol siege of January 6. Trump himself is holding rallies and amassing funds for a putative tilt at the White House. The late Colin Powell and John McCain are among those he has disparaged of late. And all of this he is pulling off without access to a social media megaphone (though he is making one of his own).
Faced with Trumps eternal relevance, Mitch McConnell, who leads the party in the Senate, joins Youngkin in splitting the difference between the Never Trump and MAGA wings of the US right. Next to outright submission to the man, this is progress of a sort. Morally, however, and perhaps even electorally, it is not enough.
On the first score, Republicans still find it hard to state the obvious: that Joe Biden was the winner of a free and fair presidential election. I do think we need to be thinking about the future and not the past, passed for a slap-down of Trump from McConnell last week. There are prominent Republicans who wont even go that far. With such tentative leaders, it is unsurprising that the theft narrative has become so entrenched among the partys grassroots. Only nine Republicans in the House of Representatives voted for the contempt charge against Bannon. In January, over a hundred voted against the certification of the election result.
Even the cold politics here are questionable. The partys plan is becoming clear: to keep its head down and profit from an increasingly hapless White House. That way, it can win back Congressional and then presidential power without the hard work of purging Trump or crafting a new Republicanism. As a tactic, it has surface plausibility. Youngkins performance in a state that Biden carried by ten points proves as much.
The trouble is that opposition parties often gain between presidential elections. In those years, voters compare the incumbents with an ideal alternative, not the one that actually exists. It is why the Republicans surged after Obamas election in 2008, only to see him re-elected four years later. For now, it is enough not to be Biden, who has spent much of the year haggling with his own side over things that voters regard as second-order. In 2022 or 2024, those suburban moderates might be more exacting in their scrutiny of the alternative. This will be doubly true if Trump is by then a declared candidate for the White House.
There is a difference between a cute gambit and a durable strategy, and the Youngkin-McConnell dance has more of the first than the second about it. The party may think it is dodging or finessing the awkward question of its relationship with the former president. In truth, it is only putting it off.