Trump Turned Republicans Into Losers
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election has tanked his poll numbers. It has cost his party control of the Senate. It led to the historic disgrace of the Capitol Hill riot. And it never stood a chance of keeping Joe Biden from taking office. But it has been a success in one respect: It has kept the stench of failure from settling over Trump among Republican voters.
Trump has nourished their sense that they almost prevailed, but that elites — vote-stealing Democrats, weak-willed and treacherous Republicans — denied them the victory they could have had. That’s a half-truth. Biden did win narrowly. If he had received 43,000 fewer votes across three states, the electoral vote would have been tied. Trump would almost certainly have won the resulting vote of state delegations to the House.
But the person most responsible for the outcome wasn’t George Soros or Mike Pence or Jim Acosta or even Joe Biden. Trump threw the election away. In his response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he made three huge unforced errors.
The plague boosted the popularity of many political leaders, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. They had different policy responses, which had different levels of success. But most political leaders, whatever their competence, knew enough to convey the sense that they were taking the crisis seriously and shared the public’s concerns about it. Not Trump. He wasn’t even able to express much sympathy for the victims.
His second mistake was discouraging Republicans from voting by mail when states embraced the practice to reduce the risk of contagion. Trump and his allies spent months saying that mail-in voting would lead to widespread fraud, and Republican voters listened. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger pointed out that 24,000 Republicans who voted absentee in the primaries in 2020 didn’t vote in the general election. That’s nearly twice Biden’s margin in the state.
Third, Trump went AWOL on Covid-relief legislation during the summer and fall, engaging on the issue only at the end of December (and, even then, chaotically). He could easily have pressured congressional Republicans to make a deal, even one they disliked, during that time. It would have strengthened both economic conditions and confidence in his leadership, probably enough to make the small bit of difference he needed. If he had shown a fraction of the interest in getting a bill done as he did in overturning the election, he might have won it for real.
For five years, Republicans have been debating how much Trump’s character flaws matter. A lot of Republicans reached the judgment that they didn’t because he was a winner, and was accomplishing some of their goals. But those flaws not only frequently made his administration dysfunctional. They also ultimately made him a political loser. Most voters, even if they approved of his economic record, didn’t like the impulsivity or self-pity. The pandemic put his defective personality in an especially unflattering light.
Even among Republicans who recognize that Trump lost a legitimate election — and that’s a minority of his voters — many still think he had a positive impact on the party, all told. He won over some voters who had not backed Republicans consistently before, and some of them may stay. He may have led the party out of a libertarian cul-de-sac it had been going down during the years when President Barack Obama occupied the White House. He will leave office with Republicans within striking distance of majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives, which is more than either of the Presidents Bush could say.
On the other hand, Trump is the first president since Herbert Hoover to see his party lose the presidency, the House and the Senate in four years. He certainly holds the prize for the biggest political losses that could have been avoided. If not for his post-election tantrum, which depressed conservative turnout in a state that has become competitive, Republicans would still have control of the Senate.
Republicans who are unhappy that the Democrats are about to have unified control of the elected branches of the federal government, however tenuous that control, should be angrier at Trump, and at those who indulged his worst instincts, than they are at Senator Mitt Romney, his most consistent Republican critic. And they should pick their next leader using different criteria than they did their last one, for their own sake if not for their country’s.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
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