Bob Neal

Perhaps no one better personifies today’s Republican Party than U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. And perhaps nothing better illustrates the spot Republicans have put themselves in than the recall referendum this week in California.

In that referendum, Gov. Gavin Newsom pulled in a higher share of the votes than when he was elected in 2018. He did it by making the election about Donald Trump and by talking up California’s success battling COVID-19 (12th lowest infection rate).

As for Graham, he went from ally of the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona to solid never-Trumper to slobbering Trump lapdog to nasty critic of former friend Joe Biden.

That’s not a lot different from the Republican Party’s journey these past five years.

On Jan. 6, Graham said, “Count me out” after the insurrection at the Capitol. Seven months later he told The New York Times that “count me out” didn’t mean “count me out.” It meant the process (the 2020 election) had come to an end.

That’s the same Lindsey Graham who in 2015 had told CNN about Trump. “Here’s what you’re buying: He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic bigot. He doesn’t represent my party.”

Hollis Felkel, a Republican operative in South Carolina, said of Graham’s pivot: “He has an abiding need to be in the room, no matter what the cost.” Kathleen Parker, Washington Post conservative columnist and a fellow South Carolinian, said Graham seeks relevance.

The question is where will its journey into Trump adoration take the party? Two possibilities, one often thought but seldom voiced, the other just starting to take shape.

The seldom-voiced possibility is that Trump dies or is otherwise unable to run, leaving the party that has gone into the tank for him still in the tank without him.

Trump would be 78 if he ran in 2024, which is Biden’s age now. Anyone watching TV couldn’t miss Trump’s physical condition. He made it down a ramp at West Point only with help. At another stop, he was visibly weak and had to lean on the podium for balance. He seemed to walk with difficulty across the White House lawn after a fateful rally in Tulsa, in which Tik Tokkers reserved tickets, then didn’t show up, leaving 12,000 seats empty. Trump had boasted of a million ticket requests.

His health is known to be poor. His friend the Rev. Franklin Graham (no relation to Lindsey) says Trump’s health could prevent a third run. “He doesn’t eat well,” Graham said. Trump is known to wolf down Big Macs and an aide said he drinks a dozen Diet Cokes a day. (Lindsey Graham apparently is a Diet Coke fan, too. Coincidence?) At 239 pounds, Trump was classified “medically obese” until his physician claimed he was an inch taller, making him less “obese.”

Trump survived COVID-19, but we still don’t know what led to his checking into Walter Reed Medical Center on Nov. 16, 2019. We do know that Vice President Mike Pence was officially notified to be ready to be acting president if Trump needed surgery.

On the other hand, Trump has longevity genes. His father lived to 93, at least the final seven years with Alzheimer’s. (I bit my tongue as I wrote that.) His mother lived to 88.

The recall vote in California is also a caution for Republicans who have put all their chips on the roulette wheel coming up orange. Republican candidates grovel for Trump’s backing. California’s Democrats put him at the top of the ballot and ran hard against him.

It worked, as 64% of those casting ballots voted against the recall, which had begun as a petition drive by Republicans but didn’t expand far beyond a core of Tea Party activists.

Democrats tied those Republicans to Trump, and the Republicans didn’t seem to mind. Conservative writer Jonah Goldberg said the Republican Party “can’t wean itself from Trump and Trumpism.” On Thursday, he told NPR, “It’s sand-poundingly stupid to tell your voters there’s no point in showing up because the system is rigged against you.”

So, have Republicans handed Democrats a winning strategy? Not likely. California isn’t America. It’s no longer the shining suburb on the hill that drew folks west. Democrats have a penchant for lousy slogans, too. Think, “Defund the police.” They have good ideas, such as “Make America America again,” but never push a good idea far enough.

Trump’s base is maybe 30% of the electorate. In 2020, he didn’t draw even two-sevenths of the remaining 70%. He’s a huge problem for Republicans, though it may not be quite true, as a friend told me, that “Mitch McConnell prays every night that Trump will die soon. It’s his only hope to save the Republican Party.”

Republicans have no bench. And Democrats have a short bench. Do they really want an 81-year-old Joe Biden atop the ticket in 2024? Does Joe Biden really want to be on the ticket in 2024? And while Kamala Harris was a great choice, politically, for vice-president, she is not a galvanizing speaker and is (in)famous for being a poor organizer.

Maybe each party will need to pull somebody up in 2024 from the minor leagues.

Bob Neal finds that many of the most perceptive analysts of the Republican Party are conservatives disenchanted with the party’s course. They sound almost like Democrats. Neal can be reached at [email protected]

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