Donald Trump will come to Washington on Thursday for a series of meetings with Republican congressional leaders. The goal, all involved say, is to hasten the process of unifying a fractured party. The reality is that, nice words to the contrary, Trump and those party leaders are likely never to fully achieve that result.
Trump is an unpredictable presidential candidate, predictable only in the sense that what he says one day can change the next. Whatever reassurances he might try to offer in the face-to-face meetings — and Trump knows how to be charming in his personal encounters — could easily be washed away by his determination to keep running the way he has run throughout the primaries, as a political provocateur of no fixed ideology.
The meetings are supercharged in large part because Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) have been sparring since Ryan announced last week that he is not ready to endorse the New York developer.
For months, Ryan has been establishing himself as the keeper of Republican values and an advocate of positive messaging in the face of a hostile takeover by the renegade Trump, whose candidacy has been buoyed by the politics of anger. The presumptive nominee has made it clear that he will brook only minimal dissent from GOP officials and has sent conflicting signals about his desire to find true unity with party leaders.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has taken a different approach. He said a week ago that he would support the party’s nominee and told reporters Tuesday: “I think most of my members believe he’s won the nomination the old-fashioned way — he got more votes than anybody else, and we respect the voices of the Republican primary voters across the country.”
One of the first questions about Thursday is: Which Trump will show up in Washington? Will it be the Trump who said a week ago that it would be helpful to meet with Ryan “before we go our separate ways”? Or will it be the Trump who on Tuesday tweeted, “I look very much forward to meeting w/Paul Ryan and the GOP Party Leadership on Thurs in DC. Together, we will beat the Dems at all levels!”
Trump’s constituency is not that of the GOP leaders. His voters distrust Republican congressional leaders, almost as much as they dislike President Obama. Trump has had near-perfect pitch with the resentment emanating from a portion of the electorate. In fact, he has fed the anger with his calls to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and to shut down U.S. borders to Muslims seeking to enter the country. Any effort to modulate his style as a way to try to satisfy the wishes of party leaders comes with the risk of lessening the enthusiasm of his core constituency.
Trump already made clear what he thinks of suggestions to change his stripes as a candidate. He rebelled after his convention manager Paul Manafort sought to reassure members of the Republican National Committee last month that, once the nomination was within reach, he would begin an evolution as a candidate. Almost within hours, Trump showed that he would do nothing of the kind. Which makes it questionable that he will make any such promises Thursday, if any of the leaders broach that issue with him.
One thing standing in the way of real unity is the wide gulf between Trump and party leaders on many key issues of Republican doctrine. On issues such as trade, entitlements and the future of the NATO alliance, the differences are deep and long stated. More recently, Trump has signaled a willingness to abandon party orthodoxy by considering higher taxes on the wealthy and boosting the minimum wage.
Those policy differences foreshadow a fight over the party platform when Republicans gather in Cleveland the week before the convention in July. Will Trump choose to push for changes that reflect his views? Does Ryan expect Trump to modify those views, to become more of a true Republican? Either could subject the party to further divisions. What some leading Republicans hope is that a clash of that sort can be avoided by simply having the two sides agree to disagree.
As one GOP elected official put it this week: “I hope he would just say, ‘Okay, you guys write the platform, and I’m going to run my campaign.’ Other presidents have not paid a whole lot of attention to the platform anyway. I don’t think it’s a productive exercise to try to redefine what a Republican is. Because for most of us, what a Republican is, is not what he’s been running on.”
There is one clear point of unity on which the two sides can agree. That is the mutual desire to defeat Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Eight years of Obama have been more than enough for Republican leaders. Fears of a Clinton presidency and Democratic control of the White House for four to eight more years will help to remind everyone of their common interests in November.
But at this point, many Republicans worry that Trump’s candidacy will hasten that result, rather than prevent it. Early projections of the Electoral College suggest he would begin with a sizable deficit, struggling to put into play states that Mitt Romney lost to Obama in 2012.
The arrival on Tuesday of three Quinnipiac University polls in the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — all of which showed Trump and Clinton in tight races — gave some Republicans hope that November will not be the debacle that some fear.
Republican leaders would like nothing more than to control the White House and Congress starting next January, especially if there is some certainty that a President Trump would appoint Supreme Court judges who would prevent a leftward shift on the high court. In the end, however, the congressional leaders have one overriding priority, and that is not to elect Trump as president, much as they hate the idea of Clinton as president. Their top priority will be to protect their House and Senate majorities.
For now they will wait and see how Trump looks as the prospective nominee, how well he adapts to a general-election contest and a broader electorate, how well he weathers the inevitable Democratic attacks. They also will seek to insulate their own candidates from Trump as necessary. And if and when it becomes clear that Trump cannot win the presidency, Republican officials will be faced with the choice of whether to cut him loose to save those majorities.
Twenty years ago, the Republican Party did just that. In the final days of that campaign, as GOP nominee Bob Dole was heading toward a loss against then-President Bill Clinton, the party ran television ads calling on voters not to turn over both the executive and legislative branches to the Democrats.
Thursday’s meetings — first with House leaders and then with Senate leaders – will be the talk of the day. No doubt the post-meeting public words from both sides will be cordial and accommodating. But what happens Thursday is barely the beginning of a long period of uncertainty and taking stock. Trump’s success has shattered the Republican Party coalition, and from every angle those in the party are feeling their way forward.