Close to six weeks after leaving the White House, former president Donald Trump is still making news, some of it himself and much of it by politicians who believe that hanging on to his coattails would bring rich political dividends. In the process elders in the Grand Old Party are trying to hold together a ship that is being pulled apart by extremists and the mainstream – the perfect example being all the noise that is coming out of Orlando, Florida, where the Conservative Political Action Committee is holding a convention.
The CPAC meeting appears to be the perfect platform to keep flagging the now discredited lies and falsehoods about the November 2020 election. The worst part of the circus seems to hover around the maxim that just because the courts tossed out cases against Trump and his allies, it does not mean that Trump lost the election. One of the vociferous advocates of this theory is Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri who does not seem to mind being torn to shreds on the substance of his arguments. The extremists in the GOP are so loud and boisterous that a feeling has come to sink in mainstream Republicans that perhaps the party is heading for a formal split.
That Trump has his eyes on a 2024 run is clear, which is one reason why some of his ardent supporters like Senator Mitch McConnell have said that they will support him if he is once again the Republican candidate. McConnell seems to forget just one possibility: that Trump need not be the GOP nominee; he could still run as a third party candidate and in the process keep with himself a huge chunk of his followers. The senator from Kentucky broke ranks with the former president over the legality of the election and the constitutionality of the Electoral College process; and like some of his colleagues does not seem to mind the barrage of insults that came from the 45th president.
If there is churning in the GOP and a vigorous movement among the extremists and hardliners it is because of what happened on November 3, 2020. The Republicans lost their coveted position in the Senate, could not get back the House of Representatives from the Democrats in spite of wresting a few seats, and lost the presidency. The big gains for the Democrats came from winning the White House, holding on to the House of Representatives even after losing a handful and flipping four seats in the Senate, bringing it to 50-50 in the chamber with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie breaker. And the GOP is aware that its success in 2024 is pegged to the mid-term congressional elections of November 8, 2022, and a lot of focus is naturally on the Senate.
In 2022 Republicans have to defend 20 seats as opposed to the Democrats’ 14; the GOP has to defend two Senate seats in states where President Joe Biden won — Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; and Democrats are not up against Senate seats in states that Trump won in November 2020. In all Republicans have to manage five open seats — in Alabama, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina where senators are either retiring or have announced that they are not for re-election. While Democrats are confident of keeping their momentum going in states they had snatched away from Trump, Republicans, especially the hardline elements, know full well that they would have to keep the bogey of a fraudulent election going in order to have the advantage at the hustings. Add to this the fact that some 74 million people voted for Trump, and that is a pretty huge collection plate to fight elections.
Keeping alive the scandalous notion of the Democrats stealing the elections is also a blunt message to those Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate who voted to convict the former president. Trump himself has promised to take these people on in their respective primaries — about ten of them in the House and seven senators who voted to convict the former president on February 13, 2021. Three out of these senators are in the 2022 map but two of them — Richard Burr of North Carolina and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — have said they are not running for re-election, leaving the lone senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to face the heat.
It is not just the GOP having to do some serious soul searching in the aftermath of the election and the rioting that took place on Capitol Hill. A little over a month since Biden moved into the White House, there are rumblings within the Democratic Party as well. It is not in any uproar, as seen within the Republican camp, over extremism, but definite questions on the policy agenda on a number of issues that the new administration is trying to grapple with. Biden’s moves on the immigration front may have raised hackles in the GOP but they have generally been welcomed by the rank and file Democrats. But where Biden is facing a lot of flak from within his own rank pertains to “not being progressive enough” on issues at the heart of the party, such as on student loans, minimum wage and corporate taxes, to mention a few. Add to this a perception that the Biden Team is not fully represented across the ideological spectrum.
The Democrats would certainly have to keep an eye out for the 2022 mid-term elections, as they would have to make sure they expand on their numbers in the Senate and not slip again in the House. One or both of these chambers getting back into the hands of the Republicans would spell disaster for the Biden domestic agenda. Even without the looming threat of Trump, Biden and the Democrats seem to have a full plate already. The vote in the House of Representatives on the $1.9 trillion stimulus package is the first indicator of how tough things are going to be legislatively — the plan passed by an almost party line vote; and it heads to the Senate where many substantive changes are expected and sent back to the House for a fresh vote. And the Biden administration has been informed that budgetary rules are such that raising federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 cannot be tagged to a reconciliation bill.
(A former senior journalist in Washington, DC, covering North America and the United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.)