PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Friday’s announcement White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus would be leaving the Trump administration didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone paying attention. Or to anyone who reads the New Yorker. If you know people who almost boast about reading the New Yorker, you know those can be mutually exclusive.
I always thought the bigger surprise about Priebus was the day he was hired.
Just over a year ago as the Republicans headed to Cleveland for their convention, there was serious concern amongst the Trump faithful about two fellas from Wisconsin who many believed were going to rob the frontrunner of his nomination.
Look, I know. “Politics ain’t beanbag.” Grudges come and go. Rivals become allies, etc. But team Trump regularly, publicly discussed the possibility GOP chair Reince Priebus and the chair of the convention, Paul Ryan were acting as potential backchannel party bosses who’d certainly double-cross him at the last second and install a “Jebbish” alternative. (Please clap.)
Remember all that? That was the common, populist, Trump-backing belief at the time. I know. I took the calls. I heard from many who believed this GOP was not Trump’s friend in any way.
Ultimately, other than a Ted Cruz non-endorsement speech, there were few surprises in Cleveland last year. In fact, Priebus seemed to stay out of the GOP food fight during the sixteen-person primary. Almost too quiet for my liking.
Priebus pulled a classic Obama strategy in 2016 – he led from behind. For all intents and purposes, it was Donald Trump who may as well have been the party’s chairman.
I remember ranting frequently about the GOP’s lackluster messaging and marketing strategies in Pennsylvania, for instance. Team Trump was barnstorming the country with rallies, talk radio appearances, etc. But in terms of the classic ad buys and door knocking we saw for campaigns like Romney in 2012, I never saw much of it.
It turned out Trump’s new way of doing business on the trail coupled with a winning message would be enough to overcome the lackluster, traditional backing from the GOP. But that doesn’t mean the GOP deserves much credit for what happened.
It was a good year for the GOP last year, but was it thanks to Priebus or Trump? I think Priebus played it safe, kept quiet, and made a convincing sale to team Trump behind closed doors that he had galvanized establishment support for the President. Seven months into this administration and it seems very clear Priebus did no such thing.
Everyone understands Donald Trump isn’t a classic, traditional Republican. He’s always been – as I said after his campaign launch in 2015 – Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack.” He’s a member of the club, but for most of the GOP’s ‘Bushwood’ he just doesn’t belong.
Reince Priebus, along with guys like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell are club members in good standing. Priebus was supposed to be the guy that could bridge the gap and cause the club’s legacy members to warm to their new member.
Dozens of miserable, embarrassing, failed attempts to repeal Obamacare later and it’s obvious – Priebus couldn’t get the club to come around because they never wanted the President to join in the first place.
The GOP’s core, elected membership has never had President Trump’s back. They believe betting on and backing him will cause them to lose their next election or invitation to Sunday talk shows as the “reasonable Republican” guest.
After the Senate GOP’s embarrassing failure to repeal Obamacare led by the always self-aggrandizing “maverick” John McCain, Texas senator Ted Cruz said, “No party can remain in power by lying to the American people.”
He’s right, of course. Congressional Democrats have privately understood that since 2010. The difference between them and the congressional GOP is they’re willing to risk everything for what they want. Even short-term losses.
Democrats were so committed to the grand scheme of government-administered health care they lied, bought off, and bribed their way to an Obamacare victory on Christmas Eve Day in a snowstorm. This GOP is so scared and so unprincipled they can’t undo something unpopular on a summer day with total control of Washington.
Democrats may lie about projected outcomes and their intentions behind legislation like Obamacare. But they never lie about their desire to pass it. They deliver the votes to get it done, no matter what it takes. Republicans seem to lie about wanting control. They don’t care enough to do anything meaningful with it.
It’s like watching firefighters show up to a burning house, then point the hose in the wrong direction – after they fought for a long time over whether they even needed to use a hose or not.
Meanwhile, the house is a total loss. The GOP may be, too.
Is it fair to put all of this on Priebus? Maybe not. But he was the guy that was supposed to navigate the establishment club on Capitol Hill for the President. He was the guy who was supposed to help leadership get the votes for a Trump signature on key legislation. It never happened.
President Trump should continue to say goodbye to the establishment GOP in his ranks. They didn’t help him win the White House and they’re sure as hell doing nothing to help him stay there.
Frankly, I’m beginning to think that may be their only, true objective.