As told to THINK editor Meredith Bennett-Smith; edited for clarity.
On the eve of President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union, I'm more pessimistic about the chances of really saving the Republican Party than I thought I would be a year ago. But it’s important to think about why the conservative movement is in such trouble.
So how did the GOP get where we are? Obviously, it’s a complicated story. There were weaknesses, it turns out, in the conservative movement that some of us didn't fully appreciate. There were weaknesses in the country. And there is a penchant for a kind of recklessness and vulgarity that obviously transcends any one movement.
Trump is also a very capable demagogue and he got lucky in terms of the field he was running against. I think ultimately it was kind of a perfect storm that produced a dangerous moment for the country.
In response, I do wish more Republican senators in Congress were standing up and pushing back. But the motivation isn’t there yet. I think what they would say is, "Look, I've got a job to do here. I'm voting for things that I mostly agree with. I'm not going to vote against Trump administration-supported legislation proposals because they're supported by the Trump administration. I'm not going to vote against qualified judicial candidates because they're nominated by Donald Trump.”
There is a penchant for a kind of recklessness and vulgarity that obviously transcends any one movement.
And in some ways, I agree with the Republican Congressmen on that.
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So, then the question is, when do you stick your neck out? In politics, you can always rationalize your behavior. Politicians have the right to withhold their judgment at times, obviously. But I think they've gone down a slippery slope with justifying not speaking up. Suddenly, you have a whole party that looks intimidated by Donald Trump and complicit in the worst aspects of the Trump administration.
And, I think, a party that's in real risk of going down the tubes because of its acquiescence to Donald Trump.
If you had asked me nine months ago, I would have said I think the Republican Party can survive Trump. I think they can sort of bracket Trump, limit what the damage does and move to get beyond him. I'm less confident about that now.
I think the party brand is getting much more enmeshed in everything Donald Trump says and stands for; the whole future of the Republican Party is now an open question.
The country must always come first. Trump is our president, and if there are ways to work with him on important issues like national security everyone must do so. Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter.
But what I have been struck are all the domestic policy issues that Congress could pass legislation on. Now, Trump may choose to veto. But let’s test him. Trump's general attitude seems to be that he wants to sign things and claim victory. He hasn’t threatened a lot of vetoes.
And yet, Democrats have the bad habit — and its not just Democrats, actually — of acting as if it’s not worth negotiating if there’s the impression that the White House doesn’t sign off on it. This is something that’s been happening for the last 20 or 30 years, and it’s simply not true. Why couldn’t you get, in some case, 15 or even 20 Republican Senators to work with Democrats on issues like immigration? Couldn’t you get some members of the House to join in on a reasonable compromise? And then you go to the president and say, "Here's what's passed." Maybe the bill was supported by just a minority of Republicans, but it still found bipartisan support. And then see what happens when you ask the president to sign it.
Congress needs to re-assert itself as an institution — especially with this president. There's no reason to defer to him.
Right now, Congressional leaders have tied themselves into knots. They go into meetings at the White House and when Trump says something terrible or blows up the negotiations, they think, "Okay, I guess I can't do the deal."
Ultimately, Congress needs to re-assert itself as an institution — especially with this president. He's not knowledgeable about policy. There's no reason to defer to him. Meanwhile, there are plenty of elected members of Congress who are quite knowledgeable and quite experienced. They should just go to work and pass things. Congress needs to act as co-equal branch.
And conservative voters need to decide for themselves who they want to support. There are plenty of state and local Republicans to admire. But I’m not in the business of telling anyone they have to stay in the Republican Party or to suck it up for the next few years.
People are free to leave the party. If you're a certain kind of Republican — a judicial constitutionalist, internationalist, non-bigoted xenophobic Republican — you have to do what you have to do. And honestly, no one should want either of the two main parties to go in the direction of authoritarian, populist nationalism. Whether Democratic or Republican, that's bad for the country.
I also think it’s worth fighting for the Republican Party. It's worth fighting for the future of the Republican Party. We may lose that fight. We may even lose it very soon, in a year or two. We may lose it in three years. We may lose it in seven years. Or we may win it. Or we may have a comeback and have a good shot at winning in three years, or five years, or seven years.
I think it’s worth fighting for the Republican Party. We may lose that fight. Or we may have a comeback and win it.
From the point of view of the country, however, we really need to have functional parties. We can’t have either one go off the rails. I’ve spoken to Democrats about potentially creating a new independent group headed by someone I could imagine supporting in 2020. That person could be a moderate, or even a Democrat. But for now, a couple of Democrats have actually encouraged me to stay in the Republican Party and work to save this major institution. You don't want to just walk away from something that right now includes half the members of Congress, more than half of all governors, etc.
What gives me hope is that, although everything has become more “tribal” — the fashionable term — a fair number of Republicans did vote against Roy Moore in Alabama. And a fair number stayed home. The same thing happened in Virginia, where there were enough swing voters to teach Republicans a lesson. And I expect Republicans will get taught another lesson in November of 2018.
William Kristol is the founder and editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard. He served in senior roles in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.