Is The Republican Party Hurting From Its Divisions, Or Rallying Around The President?

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Another week of political turbulence once again with President Donald Trump very much at the center. There was Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake announcing that he won't seek re-election and characterizing those who condone the president's leadership as complicit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF FLAKE: Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy.

SIEGEL: Flake joined Tennessee's Bob Corker, who's also leaving the Senate after this term and who's also a vocal critic of the president.

BOB CORKER: The constant non-truth-telling, the - just the name calling, the things like - I think the debasement of our nation will be what he'll be remembered most for, and that's regretful.

SIEGEL: With both Tennessee and Arizona seen as safe states for the Republicans, the Trump White House professed no concern over those critics and their departures. Here's Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think that the people both in Tennessee and Arizona supported this president, and I don't think that the numbers are in the favor of either of those two senators in their states.

SIEGEL: Is the Republican Party hurting from its divisions or rallying around the president, controversial though he may be? Well, that's the starting point for our Friday political conversation with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, who's also co-author of "One Nation After Trump" and who's joining us today from Boston. Thank you, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And in our Washington studio - Eliana Johnson, national political reporter for Politico. Hiya.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Hi there.

SIEGEL: Let's start with you, Eliana. Is the story this week establishment Republicans at war with Trumpian nationalists or Trump-Bannon wing purges the GOP and continues to unify the party around the president's leadership?

JOHNSON: I actually don't think either one of those are quite the story. They're a little bit reductionist, if I can use that term. I think the question is, how best can an anti-Trump lawmaker oppose the president? I think there are a couple different models, but certainly vocal and strident opposition is something that will write a serving lawmaker out of the Republican Party. Jeff Flake found himself essentially unelectable in Arizona after writing a book and being a vocal critic constantly of the president.

But we've seen lawmakers like Lindsey Graham certainly oppose the president. But be friendly with him, and form a relationship with him. And lawmakers like Rand Paul oppose parts of his agenda but be - also golf with him, be friendly with him. So I think what we've learned from the Flake and Corker incidents are that you cannot stridently and vocally oppose this president without having a relationship with him and remain electable in today's Republican Party.

SIEGEL: And with a relationship, do you count on influencing him at all or no?

JOHNSON: I think that that's what these guys like Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell as well are bargaining on.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think about this conflict in the Republican Party?

DIONNE: Well, the good news for those who would like Republicans to turn on Trump in larger numbers is that you did have something close to critical mass. You had former President George W. Bush although he didn't mention in my name, Senator Flake, Senator Corker. Senator McCain has been out there. And so having some politicians joining the significant number of anti-Trump writers, intellectuals, people outside of elected office - that's important.

But it also showed I think this week that the vast majority of Republican elected officials are taking a look at the polls and looking at the Republican base and saying most Republicans are not ready to turn on Trump yet. And you know, the fact, as Eliana suggested, that that basically Flake and Corker have to leave rather than stay and win a primary tells you something about the current state of the Republican Party. But this is a milestone along a longer road, and we'll see whether they're outliers or whether they are leading indicators.

SIEGEL: Eliana, let me ask you about one word that E.J. just used - yet. Do you assume there's more trouble to come, or might the Republicans stabilize themselves with Trump?

JOHNSON: I certainly think there will be continuing disagreement within the Republican Party, but I don't think that any lawmaker who wants to remain in office and who's looking at a competitive election is going to be outspoken in the way Jeff Flake and Bob Corker have been. And I question the effectiveness of what they've done. Clearly they're saying they'd rather play on the sidelines. And George Bush, you know, is now a sideline player.

So it's true that we are seeing prominent figures speak out against Trump, but they're essentially telling the voters that they're wrong. I don't think we've seen too many people chart a middle path and voice anti-Trump sentiments in a way that, you know, is suitable to voters and really to make an argument and try to run on it.

SIEGEL: Yeah, but Flake went out on...

DIONNE: Could I take just...

SIEGEL: Yes, E.J., go ahead, yeah.

DIONNE: Oh, I just want to take mild issue with my friend Eliana that I agree that for now, Republican primary voters and the base is not ready to turn on Trump. But I think if you are going to have more people turning on Trump, you need some outspoken voices to put their names on it and to say, as Flake and Corker did, there was something deeply wrong here. So I'm thinking on the - in the long run, if the chaos continues around Trump, I think some other Republicans will say, OK, I know I'm not alone here; I'm going to take the plunge, too. And that's what we're going to see.

JOHNSON: I would say, E.J. - I don't think the never-Trump movement is exactly flourishing, but I take your point.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) OK.

DIONNE: Bless you for that.

SIEGEL: In the spirit of friendship.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: When Republicans want to say that all of this is a great distraction, they say, let's talk about getting a tax bill done instead. This was Speaker of the House Paul Ryan this past week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: The fact is, we have a historic chance of actually fixing this tax code, giving people pay raises and getting the American economy growing.

SIEGEL: Are we going to see, Eliana, a big tax bill that, say, strips the tax deduction for state income taxes out something that big passed with 51, 52 votes in the U.S. Senate, a straight party line in the House?

JOHNSON: The passage of a budget this week was a step to getting towards a big tax bill, but it was just a step. And Republicans are certainly - they agree on reducing tax rates, but there is still a lot of disagreement on how you make up for those lost revenues, whether it's changing how 401(k)s are structured or eliminating state and local tax deductions. And there's still a tremendous amount of disagreement. So I think the question about whether we'll see a tax bill is whether Republicans can strike some kind of agreement about how to make up the revenue lost from cutting tax rates.

SIEGEL: An agreement within their own ranks.

JOHNSON: Within their own ranks. This is going to be done through reconciliation, which means they just need a majority vote in the Senate. So they will have to come to agreement. And right now, Republicans from wealthy states where those state and local deductions are pretty big like New York, New Jersey, California are not happy. And many of them did not vote for the House budget. It passed pretty narrowly.

SIEGEL: E.J., how many of them are there?

DIONNE: Well, you had a lot of New Yorkers, but you had the whole California delegation which in another vote could well vote against this if they don't change the deductibility. For now, all those California members went along. So it's not as easy as it looks. But if the Republicans can't pass a tax cut, they can't do anything. And they are very well aware of that. I think their difficulty...

SIEGEL: On that...

DIONNE: They're trying to stuff a lot of tax cuts into a relatively small amount of money, and they have to offset some things with other things.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Eliana Johnson of Politico, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.