- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Whose GOP is it anyway?

President Trump touted “great unity” in the Republican Party on Wednesday and dismissed flashes of insurgency, but the political self-immolation this week of Sen. Jeff Flake highlighted the struggle for the soul of the GOP, which has been raging for years between tea party and chamber of commerce types.

For now, the Trump wing appears to be on the ascent.

“We have actually great unity in the Republican Party,” Mr. Trump said as he left the White House on his way to Dallas, unbowed by dust-ups a day earlier with Mr. Flake and fellow anti-Trump Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.

“Politics is a rough business,” said the president. “We’re really unified on what we want to do. We want tax cuts for the middle class, we want tax cuts for businesses to produce jobs.”

But the same groundswell that upended the Republican presidential primaries last year and delivered Mr. Trump an upset White House win in November is sweeping out Republicans who don’t measure up or can’t shake the establishment label.

And divisions within the party electorate run deep.

A report from the Pew Research Center shows the Republican coalition is deeply divided on issues such as immigration, America’s role in the world and the fairness of the U.S. economic system.

The Republican Party is divided into four groups. The first two, core conservatives and “country first” conservatives, overwhelmingly approve of Mr. Trump but disagree on immigration and America’s role in the world.

The other groups are market-skeptic Republicans and “new-era enterprisers” that are strongly pro-business, according to Pew.

Mr. Trump’s base remains energized and mostly intact, and it’s wreaking havoc on the Republican establishment.

“The country needed him. He’s what the American people wanted. We needed a change,” said retired parole officer Patty Tellez, 63, who was on the tarmac in Dallas with about 100 Trump supporters when Air Force One landed. “No matter what party you’re in, you’re going to have people who don’t like him. But the American people have spoken.”

Mr. Flake was the latest in a series of Republican lawmakers to call it quits rather than face uphill re-election runs against primary challengers who fashion themselves as Trump Republicans.

Mr. Corker, another loud Trump critic, is going home after next year. So are several moderate House Republicans: Charles W. Dent of Pennsylvania, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and David G. Reichert of Washington.

Mr. Trump said the turmoil in the Republican Party is nothing compared with what is happening in the Democratic Party, which is still reeling from revelations that party officials conspired to sabotage Sen. Bernard Sanders’ presidential run in favor of Hillary Clinton.

“That’s a mess” Mr. Trump said, adding that his lunch Tuesday with Senate Republicans was “a lovefest.”

According to Pew, Democrats are “largely united” against Mr. Trump but divided on issues such as government regulations and U.S. global involvement.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, said both parties were undergoing political upheaval.

“Clearly, fault lines are showing up that reflect dramatic change in the country,” Mr. Gingrich said. “It’s the dramatic change in the country which Trump personifies. We have it on the right, and there’s a parallel realignment underway on the left — the degree to which the Sanders wing of the party, the socialist, radical wing of the party, is now taking on the Democratic Party establishment. Both of these activist, populist wings are taking on their respective establishments.”

He compared the departures of Mr. Flake and Mr. Corker to the rift in the California Democratic Party, where insurgent Kevin de Leon is challenging incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein. There is also speculation that liberal billionaire Tom Steyer could enter the primary contest.

The turmoil represents generational change, Mr. Gingrich said.

“This is building on both sides,” he said. “Some people are going to decide that they either can’t survive or don’t want to survive in that environment.”

He said of Mr. Trump, “He is recognizing a national hunger for a much more aggressively pro-American policy on his side, which is of course repudiated by the hard left. I see Trump as a continuation of a Reagan nationalism and a Reagan willingness to take on the establishment, versus the Republicans who frankly were very comfortable in the establishment.”

The president’s decision to make an issue of the NFL player protests during the national anthem is a good example of the divide in the Republican Party, Mr. Gingrich said.

“If you are a traditional establishment business Republican, fighting over the NFL standing or not standing for the anthem strikes you as strange,” he said. “If you are an emerging, national patriot who thinks that the flag really matters as a symbol and you’re sick and tired of the left having contempt for their own country, then fighting over this is exactly what you want and more important than tax cuts.”

Mr. Trump’s role as party leader was on display in Dallas, where he attended a Republican National Committee roundtable discussion and a spoke at a fundraiser for his 2020 re-election campaign.

The president said he bore no ill will toward Mr. Flake and thought the senator “did the smart thing.”

“His poll numbers are terrible,” said Mr. Trump. “He would have never won. He’s way down in the primary. He did the smart thing for himself. This way he can get out somewhat gracefully.”

Mr. Flake, who dodged questions about whether he would run for president in 2020, announced Tuesday that he wouldn’t run for re-election next year and blamed Mr. Trump for debasing American political discourse with “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior.”

“The bottom line is, if I were to run a campaign that I could be proud of and where I didn’t have to cozy up to the president or his positions or his behavior, I could not win in a Republican primary,” Mr. Flake said Wednesday on MSNBC.

“It’s not that you just have to be with the president on policy. You can’t question his behavior and still be a Republican in good standing, apparently, in a Republican primary,” he said.

Meanwhile, former White House chief political strategist Steve Bannon is backing Trump-style challengers to incumbent establishment Republicans.

His first major victory was arch-conservative former Judge Ray Moore, who defeated incumbent Luther Strange last month for the Republican nomination in Alabama’s special election for U.S. Senate.

Mr. Bannon considered Mr. Flake “another scalp.”

Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, balked at the suggestion that the party is culling non-Trump candidates.

“There’s room for every type of conservative,” she said on Fox News.

Mrs. McDaniel insisted that Mr. Flake’s indignant exit was not symptomatic of a Republican Party increasingly intolerant of dissent to Mr. Trump.

“I have to say President Trump is a traditional Republican,” she said. “He came to my state of Michigan. He talked about cutting taxes, limiting government, about deregulation. These are Republican ideals, and he has exemplified them as the president.”

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