Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor and Republican campaign adviser, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Donald Trump’s return to the national stage at the Conservative Political Action Convention (CPAC) was about what I expected: In a two-track speech where he was intermittently bored by a teleprompter and amused by his own adlibs, he teased a third presidential run, came home to his animating issue, immigration (which was inexplicably absent from his 2020 reelection campaign) and continued the farce that he actually won last November. He even ran through a “hit list” of Republicans to be ousted from the party.
Of note was Trump shooting down the idea of a third party, which is actually a good impulse. Republicans cannot win with a fractured party, nor can they win if it gets any smaller. I don’t understand the quest by some Republicans to shrink the party. The GOP just lost the White House by nearly 7 million votes and hasn’t won the national popular vote in a presidential election with someone other than a Bush since 1984. Republicans lost the White House and don’t control either house of Congress in Washington, despite the relative equilibrium in the congress.
Yet, there was Sen. Ted Cruz at CPAC a couple of days before Trump, trying to excommunicate people he derided as “country club Republicans” – Republicans who, I guess, Cruz finds distasteful for their incessant golfing and love of private dining. Is he unaware that Trump currently lives at a country club and owns a bunch of them?
Cruz copied Rep. Jim Jordan with these statements, who the other day declared that the Republican Party no longer tolerates people who drink wine and eat cheese and accepts only those who wear blue jeans and drink beer. How much wine and cheese do you think the good people of Mar-a-Lago consume on a daily basis?
The real question is: why can’t the GOP have it all? What good does it do for the smaller of the two parties to shrink itself further? Does Cruz consider Ritz Carlton goers to be in or out? Because he just stayed in one in Mexico the other day.
As a practical matter, the GOP is currently capable of winning majorities in the 2022 midterms because of geographic, jurisdictional, and redistricting advantages – along with the strong possibility that President Joe Biden will be far more liberal than advertised.
But there’s no evidence the GOP can win the 2024 presidential campaign unless it embraces a more elastic brand, which welcomes country clubbers, white and blue collar workers, young and old, White and non-White. We need the insurance agent and the pipefitter. The retired Rotarian and the young welder. The grandma voting in her 12th election and her granddaughter voting in her first.
We need them all.
But who can lead the party to that broad coalition? There is direct empirical evidence that putting Trump at the center of our party in 2024 is a probable loser, as Trump twice got a smaller percentage of the vote than Mitt Romney. And that was before the failed insurrection wherein Trump violated his oath of office to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.
Some Republicans (especially those most loyal to Trump) make the mistake of believing politics to be a game of subtraction when it is really a game of addition. It is entirely possible to construct a rational, center-right policy platform that attracts a broad coalition that includes Trump supporters. The Democrats, led by Biden, are already making it easy for the GOP to unify in opposition to what they see as far-left agenda. The follow-up task is to offer a competing governing alternative based on something other than grievances and conspiracy theories.
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Trump actually ran on a policy platform in 2016 – immigration, trade, drain the swamp. He ran on virtually nothing in 2020 and has left the Republican Party searching for an identity beyond blind loyalty to him. Where do we go from here? It’s going to take a while to sort it out but running on nothing but “more Trump” and shrinking the party for the sin of joining a club like Trump’s is unlikely to put a Republican back in the White House.