While the public ranks of anti-Trump Republicans have shrunk into insignificance by now, it’s still clear — from anecdotal evidence via Republican friends, and from every disclosure of daily business in the White House, whose MAGA warriors regularly mock and thwart POTUS — that while the GOP has solidly lined up behind Trump’s agenda and reelection campaign, there are still serious intraparty misgivings about the Boss. Smart Republicans would have to either laugh or cry or roll their eyes at such astonishing examples of presidential cluelessness as his threat to “head to the U.S. Supreme Court” to stop impeachment proceedings.
Still, in sports and in politics, your team is your team, and to the extent that the GOP’s fate is bound up in Trump’s for the time being, all the eye-rolling is largely kept in private. But you have to figure some Republicans are looking ahead to 2020 and seeing a silver lining in a possible narrow Trump reelection loss, at least so long as the GOP holds onto the Senate.
That’s an entirely plausible scenario, as it happens. Republicans go into 2020 with a 53-47 Senate majority. Only three Republican incumbents are currently rated as vulnerable by the Cook Political Report, and none of them is as endangered as Alabama Democrat Doug Jones. Add in the lively prospect that Joe Manchin may resign his seat to run for governor, almost certainly giving the GOP another Senate seat from Trump-loving West Virginia, and the odds of a GOP Senate in 2021 look quite good, even if Trump again loses the popular vote and doesn’t again pull off the inside straight of an Electoral College victory.
A Republican Senate under the control of Mitch McConnell facing a new Democratic administration would almost certainly replicate McConnell’s obstructionist strategy during the Obama presidency. Indeed, given the intense investment of conservatives in the takeover of the federal judiciary that Trump is engineering to keep his base satisfied, you could envision even more hardball tactics from Senate Republicans on confirmations along with legislation.
Yes, a Democratic White House would mean the end of any grand schemes of conservative policy revolution, and might put off consolidation of an aggressively right-wing Supreme Court (one willing, say, to flatly reverse Roe v. Wade) for a bit. That last factor alone will keep many conservative Evangelicals praying for a Trump win. But consider the advantages to the GOP of a narrow loss:
· The economy won’t keep growing forever. Losing the White House in 2020 makes it more likely Democrats will get the blame for a turndown or a recession — as they largely did after Barack Obama was elected in 2008.
· If Trump is reelected, the 2022 midterms could be a bloodbath for his party, as second-term midterms often are. Twenty-two of the 34 Senate seats up in 2022 are currently held by Republicans. They could use a wind behind them to maintain control.
· A Trump loss, even if it’s narrow, would likely break the grip of Trumpism on the party, keeping its options open for a future in which demographic change makes his brand of white identity politics increasingly perilous. If Trump wins a second term, Mike Pence becomes the presumptive successor, unless the president decides Ivanka is ready to run. But a post-Trump party could arguably bring back some of the cherished orthodoxes — like free trade and neoconservatism — that Trump has forced it to abandon.
· Republicans are temperamentally better suited to being the “out party” rather than the governing party, as its paltry legislative accomplishments in 2017–2018 showed, despite total control of the federal government. From the moment of Barack Obama’s election, however, Republicans went on an extended winning streak that gave them net gains of 12 Senate seats, 63 House seats, 13 governorships, and 23 state legislative chambers. That all ended with Trump’s election, so Democrats might not be the only ones singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” if the 45th president’s turbulent reign ends.
Now, I wouldn’t want to take this hypothesis too far. Republicans would undoubtedly feel pain at the loss of federal patronage that losing the White House would involve; job prospects in Real America for those young men wearing MAGA hats might not be as robust as they might imagine. And if a Trump loss in 2020 also damages GOP positioning in governorships and state legislatures on the brink of the decennial Census (perhaps offset by the thumb on the scales the administration is trying to administer through a citizenship question on the Census), the costs of defeat might be too high and too lasting.
But if Republicans can thread the needle, any tears they shed on Trump’s behalf on November 3, 2020, might be of the crocodile variety. And for the secret band of suppressed Trump-loathers in the GOP (yes, we know you’re there), it’s a more likely recipe for redemption than some doomed primary challenge by William Weld or Larry Hogan.