Paul Ryan was once seen as the intellectual leader of the GOP. Ted Cruz was its conservative purist. Mitch McConnell was the party’s brilliant strategist, and Rand Paul, its inconvenient but consistent libertarian, pushing to broaden Republican appeal.
But as Labor Day of the president’s first year nears, party officials and veteran operatives concede that the GOP belongs to Donald Trump more than anyone else — and he is reshaping it in ways that will have dramatic implications for the party for a generation.
“Right now, it is his party,” said Peter Wehner, who has served in the last three Republican presidential administrations.
“That’s a political tragedy to me,” he said. “There will be an enormous cost. Ultimately, the Republican Party has got to reclaim its identity apart from Trump. But right now, it’s his party and we can cry if we want to.”
The vast majority of Republican voters are distinctly dry-eyed. Despite historically low approval ratings at this point in the presidency, Trump’s approval among Republican voters is close to 80 percent. While that’s down from earlier in his presidency, it’s an unquestionably strong number given the self-inflicted wounds and controversies this president has suffered.
Perhaps most critically, Trump polls much better with Republicans than the GOP-led Congress does — the congressional approval rating among Republicans is only 16 percent, according to a Gallup survey earlier this month.
And that basic truth has kindled among Republicans in Washington a fear of alienating Trump’s voters, giving the president an extraordinary level of control over internal dissent, even as he shocks and offends GOP officials over everything from Charlottesville to Russia and apparent nuclear threats against North Korea.
“He got a lot of flak for saying he could kill someone on Fifth Avenue. It’s kind of true. He can do anything and it’s OK,” marveled one GOP strategist in attendance at the summer meeting of the Republican National Committee here in Nashville, speaking of Trump’s grip on the base.
“You’re seeing it even with Charlottesville. After two days, his people are still there, they hate Congress more than him. It’s kind of like, what is it going to take for these guys?”
At the meeting of the Republican National Committee, the official party apparatus closely tied to the White House, there is virtually no appetite for anything other than a full embrace of the president.