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If a Republican like Rob Portman won't run for re-election, don't hold out for a Trump-free GOP

After the attack on Congress by radical Trump supporters, there was some optimism that the party might reject Trumpism. That looks less and less likely.
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Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, speaks during a Finance Committee executive session in Washington on Friday.Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Rob Portman's surprising announcement Monday that he had decided not to run for re-election shows that the future of the Republican Party is as bleak as the future of bipartisanship in Washington.

Portman, R-Ohio, is one of the few longtime lawmakers in Washington — he served 12 years in the House before he resigned to serve first as President George W. Bush's U.S. trade representative and then as his director of the Office of Management and Budget — who is respected by Democrats and Republicans alike.

However, the Congress to which he now belongs is very different from the Congress to which he was first elected.

Portman cited the inability to break through the entrenched partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill as the main reason not to seek re-election. With Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, and with the only way to impose said gridlock being Republicans' ability to wield the filibuster in the Senate to stymie the Democrats' agenda, the subtext of his statement suggests that the Republican Party will, unfortunately, continue to be extreme. The GOP will, at least for the foreseeable future, remain the party of Donald Trump.

It's no secret that Portman is considered a moderate Republican, and he never gave into the far-right conspiracy theories being pedaled by Trump and his allies. Given that the far right has hijacked the Republican Party as he and I used to know it, moderate Republicans like Portman (who came to Washington to seek common ground to best serve his constituents) are being pushed out.

The Congress to which Portman now belongs is very different from the Congress to which he was first elected.

I fear that, without any moderate Republicans, all hope is lost for the future of bipartisanship in Congress, despite the country's desperate need for leadership and unity.

While many commentators optimistically thought the Republican Party would disavow the extremist faction that rose to power under Trump, it appears as though it is instead looking to root out those with centrist and commonsense ideologies and making it clear that moderate Republicans (rather than Republicans who believe in QAnon and those with white supremacist leanings) have no home in this new party.

Trump's impeachment trial could have been used to distance the party from Trump, but it seems as though many Republican senators lack the courage to support his conviction even after his incitement of a violent mob and its attack on the very building they govern in.

The Republican Party has obviously learned nothing from the violent insurrection or the election that lost it the Senate and the White House. Rather than correcting course and ridding themselves of the scourge of Trump, they are continuing to build the party in his image and likeness, pushing out the moderates they need to win in 2022 and beyond.

I fear that, without any moderate Republicans, all hope is lost for the future of bipartisanship in Congress.

Just last week, we saw a heartening video of three former presidents of both parties calling for unity, and even President Joe Biden acknowledged the need for a healthy Republican Party — the way it was before the rise of Trump. It is clear that Republicans do not want to heed those messages.

At this point, I can only hope that as the Republican Party continues to move further to the extreme right, other voters will not go along with it. It is important that voters who lean conservative on the issues recognize the danger of an extremist Republican Party and leave it to hasten the dissolution of the extremist party it seems determined to become.

Maybe once that happens, those moderate Republicans will return to rebuild a new Republican Party rooted in fiscal conservatism and commonsense policies — and to restore healthy debate in the halls of Congress. While I will never be returning to the Republican Party after having left it in 2016, I am sure some defectors would return if the party rebuilt itself on moderate and establishment principles and ridded itself of Trump and its dangerous extremism.

After all, for a healthy democracy, we need healthy debate, but I am afraid that if those in the center are pushed out of the discussion, our democracy will continue to remain in peril despite the many efforts of the Biden administration. As long as Trump's core values — self-aggrandizement, debasing political opponents as a tenet of policy and love of authoritarianism — rule the Republican Party, our democracy will continue to be jeopardized. His values have led to a rise in dangerous, absurd conspiracy theories and the desire to undo the foundation upon which our country and its government were built to keep him in power.

The peaceful transition of power last week was a sobering reminder that democracy can prevail, but only if it is protected at all costs. It is clear that some in the Republican Party seek to disrupt our democracy; as Americans, regardless of party affiliation, we should worry that moderate Republicans are leaving their party, because no one will be left to try to fix it or criticize its acceptance of false narratives from within. Without moderates in the party, there are few ways for anyone to build roads toward compromise and a healthy two-party system.

Many Americans are breathing easier with the return to normalcy heralded by Biden's inauguration, but, while I truly believe there are better days ahead, I fear that the loss of moderates in his opposition is a bad sign. This is a time when we need more Rob Portmans, not fewer.

And the sad reality is that there were already very few moderates like him left.