MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 3rd of March, 2021.
Thank you for joining us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: Is the GOP still the party of Trump?
This past weekend, the former president delivered his first public speech since he left office. He spoke at CPAC, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Sunday.
It was the first time CPAC gathered outside the Washington, DC area.
AUDIO: [Crowd sound]
The CPAC crowd had both ideological and practical reasons to meet in Florida. Practically, D.C. is still under a strict Covid lockdown and Florida is less so and that allowed for a live audience. Ideologically, that’s the policy conservatives tend to prefer.
So when Trump took the stage, the crowd went wild.
TRUMP: Well thank you very much and hello CPAC. Do you miss me yet? Do you miss me?
Trump supporters packed the room, but clearly the GOP is riven. Former Vice President Mike Pence declined an invitation to this year’s event. As did Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney. They were no-shows.
REICHARD: That raises the question: is it still Trump’s party?
And what role will he play in the GOP’s future?
Here now to help us tackle those questions is Professor Mark Caleb Smith. He directs the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. Professor, good morning!
MARK CALEB SMITH, GUEST: Good morning. It’s good to be with you.
REICHARD: Well, the CPAC conference is always a who’s who lineup of Republican speakers. But as we said, no Pence, no McConnell, no Cheney. Also no former ambassador Nikki Haley. What do you make of their absence?
SMITH: I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a split within the Republican party. It may not be as severe as we think, looking at it from the outside, but I think at that elite level—we talk elites, we’re talking about office holders, donors, and party officials—there are still some splits that are operating right there. And so they’re going to have to paper over those splits if they hope to move forward. But I should say, this isn’t unusual in some ways. Every time you have a losing presidential campaign, there’s always a good bit of angst within a party to figure out what went wrong and what they can improve in the future. But what we’re looking at right now does feel a little different than that.
REICHARD: There was never any doubt that Donald Trump would be the star of CPAC this year. Is that an accurate snapshot of where he stands with Republican voters overall? Or I guess I’ll ask it this way: Is the GOP still the party of Trump?
SMITH: I think that it is. For all intents and purposes, it is still the party of Trump. I think when you look at the polling data right now, the president still enjoys a really wide amount of approval within the party. And we also see at the national level very few—on the whole—very few office holders are willing to publicly challenge the president. Now, there are some notable exceptions, of course. And we saw some of that happen during the second impeachment trial. But on the whole they’ve been unified behind the president and they’re willing to support the president, it looks like, as he moves toward a potential 2024 run.
REICHARD: On Sunday, Trump called out Republicans by name who either voted to impeach him or who have criticized him since the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol.
A couple of questions for you about that: What will come of those lawmakers? Do you think this rift within the party will continue?
SMITH: In some ways I think that’s the most important question moving forward. So, we do clearly have a rump of the party, so to speak, that is resisting Donald Trump even within Congress itself. We could talk about Ben Sasse from Nebraska, Liz Cheney from Wyoming, Kinsinger from Illinois. There are enough of them to where they matter to some degree to the former president. If they continue to run and seek office—some of those are House members, they’re going to be running in 2022, some of those are Senators who will be coming up a little bit later—if they seek those offices and if they survive, then I think you might see more of that division take place publicly. However, if in 2022, someone like Liz Cheney, for example, fails to win reelection in Wyoming, then I think that will cement, for sure, moving forward that it is Donald Trump’s party. So, I suspect the divisions are going to continue at least for a period of time. There are a lot of unknown variables floating out there: how are donors reacting, what does the legal process look like for the former president. But, right now, I think the division’s going to go forward.
REICHARD: Professor, I want to give you two sides of an argument here as to whether the winning path for the GOP is to embrace Trump or not.
We’ll start with South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Here’s what he said a couple weeks ago:
GRAHAM: To the Republican party, if you want to win and stop a socialist agenda, we need to work with President Trump. We can’t do it without him. And all I can say is that the most potent force in the Republican party is President Trump. We need Trump-plus.
REICHARD: He says “Trump-plus” is the GOP path to victory. Professor, what do you say?
SMITH: I don’t think that that’s going to work. And let me be very clear here. Certainly President Trump is the most dominant force within the party. He brings the most energy, the most enthusiasm within the party, however I think for the Republican party to be truly competitive in national elections—we’re talking about winning the presidency, winning the popular vote potentially, which they have not done for a long time—they’re going to need all those components working together in unison. So you’re going to need the Republicans who are lukewarm on Trump or even anti-Trump. You’re going to need the Republicans who are pro-Trump, and they’re going to have to come together somehow to function collectively if you want the party to move forward in its most effective way. So, I don’t think the pro-Trump strategy is the best one and I’m not sure the anti-Trump strategy is the best one. There’s going to have to be some sort of middle road that can bring the two sides together.
REICHARD: Let me get your reaction to the remarks of another GOP senator, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy. He noted that Republicans just lost the White House and both chambers of Congress, and here’s what he told CNN:
CASSIDY: We have got to win in two years. We’ve got to win in four years. We’ll do that by speaking to the issues that are important to the American people, not by putting one person on a pedestal and making that person our focal point. If we idolize one person, we will lose. And that’s kind of clear from the last election.
So professor, you touched on that before, do you think he has a point?
SMITH: I do. I think that he has a point. I think that if the party moves forward with Trump as its focal point, it’s going to be divided. The division may not be massive. It’ll be big enough for them to have a hard time winning national elections. At the same time, if the party repudiates Trump, if there’s a massive movement within the party to repudiate him and try to move in a different reaction, we’re probably looking at tens of millions of voters who might want to go in a different direction at that point. It may not be another party, but it may just be simply staying home and not coming out to vote. And so if the goal is to maximize the Republican party moving forward, it has to somehow figure out how to keep all of those pieces together. I’m not sure it’s possible. But I think that’s the best approach that the party can take.
REICHARD: Now, of course, the big moment on Sunday came when Trump teased another possible White House bid in 2024.
We can’t predict this far out whether he’ll run again. But what do you suppose will be the factors that will ultimately persuade him to run or not run again?
SMITH: I think the first one is what does the legal process look like surrounding him. So we know there are investigations in New York. They’re looking into his tax records. We think there’s going to be an investigation out of Georgia that looks into his efforts to maybe pressure Georgia state officials to deliver votes to him. If those kinds of investigations yield fruit, and we end up with the president being prosecuted, indicted, maybe even convicted, then I have to think that that really undermines, if not destroys, his ability to move forward in 2024. If he can somehow survive those, which I think there’s a strong likelihood that he could, then he’s going to have to prove that he can still raise money. From everything that I hear, and I’m not going to claim to be super, super plugged into the Republican elite group of people, but from everything that I’m hearing, there’s a significant number of donors in the Republican party who are a little bit squeamish about President Trump after January 6th. If there are enough of those people collectively who are just not interested in donating more to President Trump, then his candidacy could die on the vine before we get to 2024. So, there’s still a lot of things to play out. Like you said, we can’t really predict for sure, but I think he has a reasonable chance to do it. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.
REICHARD: Mark Caleb Smith teaches political science and directs the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. Mark, thank you for your time today.
SMITH: It’s always my pleasure. Thank you.