The Other McCain

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Notes on Partisanship: ‘At Some Point You Have to Join the Team That You’re On’

Posted on | March 31, 2024 | Comments Off on Notes on Partisanship: ‘At Some Point You Have to Join the Team That You’re On’

Professor Reynolds quotes me as having once said the above quote, and I’m sure I did, but I couldn’t find it via Google search, and that’s OK. As I recall, it was during Barack Obama’s first term in the White House, when some Republicans were reluctant to embrace the Tea Party movement while, at the same time, some members of the Tea Party movement were reluctant to embrace the GOP. Or, to speak more broadly, there was then (as now) an apparent divide between the Establishment and the grassroots of the opposition to the Democrat-controlled regime.

P.J. O’Rourke’s 1988 classic Republican Party Reptile is a useful reference point to understanding this. Famous for his humor as an editor of National Lampoon (back in the days of its greatness), O’Rourke found himself in the 1980s at odds with the direction of the Democratic Party (and the majority of the media class). Despite being a dope-addled long-haired hippie type, O’Rourke was excited by the booming economy of Reagan-era America and, like many Baby Boomers at the time, realized that this placed him in a somewhat awkward coalition with a lot of uptight Eisenhower-vintage people who didn’t wholly approve of his worldview and lifestyle. O’Rourke wanted to set up a booth to promote his book at the 1988 Republican convention, but the RNC refused to allow it. You might understand their reluctance to endorse a book which included the essay, “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink”:

When it comes to taking chances, some people like to play poker or shoot dice; other people prefer to parachute-jump, go rhino hunting, or climb ice floes, while still others engage in crime or marriage. But I like to get drunk and drive like a fool. Name me, if you can, a better feeling than the one you get when you’re half a bottle of Chivas in the bag with a gram of coke up your nose and a teenage lovely pulling off her tube top in the next seat over while you’re going a hundred miles an hour down a suburban side street. You’d have to watch the entire Mexican air force crash-land in a liquid petroleum gas storage facility to match this kind of thrill. If you ever have much more fun than that, you’ll die of pure sensory overload, I’m here to tell you.

On the advice of Bert the Samoan Lawyer, I will invoke my right to remain silent on this particular subject, but the point is, the Republican National Committee didn’t appreciate O’Rourke’s sense of humor. It was at the DNC, not the RNC, that Rob Lowe had his scandalous escapade, and I can’t remember if the “teenage lovely” in his case was wearing a tube top, but it’s probably not relevant to whatever point I was making before I wandered off into this digression. Namely, that the two-party system in America ultimately requires us to choose sides, if we want to participate in the process in such a way as to make a difference.

You don’t want to be a “swing voter,” the kind of idiot who tells pollsters he’s undecided who to vote for two weeks before Election Day. Politics is a team sport. and unless you want to be some schmuck who’s a mere spectator at the game, well, you have to join the team you’re on.

Let me explain this with a personal anecdote which doesn’t involve teenagers in tube tops. At CPAC 2011, my friend Andrew Breitbart was instrumental in getting Donald Trump to give a main-stage speech and I hated it — a lot of protectionist tariff talk about China to which my reaction was, “Smoot and Hawley could not be reached for comment.”

I was not then, and am not now, part of any “cult” that believes Trump is a beau ideal of principled conservatism. Fast-forward from CPAC 2011 to June 2015 — after the Romney debacle, etc.– and Trump famously rides down the escalator to throw his hat in the ring of the GOP primary. What was my reaction? Well, before getting into that, let me remind you of my manic campaign-trail adventures of 2011-2012, when I went all-in on the Herman Cain campaign and then, after Cain got sabotaged, jumped onto the Rick Santorum campaign. My general idea was Anybody But Mitt. We had a good run of it, trying to stop Mister Inevitable and the GOP Establishment, but in the end were forced to accept our fate, and I’ll never forget being in a hotel room in Gahanna, Ohio, for Election Day. About supper time, just before the polls closed, we were debating whether to head over to the state GOP Victory Party in downtown Columbus, but we decided to stay at the hotel at least long enough to watch the early returns come in,. We soon realized that the downtown party was going to be a bummer we didn’t want to attend, and I cranked out my column, “Doomed Beyond All Hope of Redemption.”

So I’d gone all-in three times over during that campaign, and gotten stomped flat each time, and when the field of Republican candidates for the next presidential primary campaign started forming up in early 2015, I adopted a wait-and-see posture. Of course, I had a prior friendship with Santorum, who was planning another run at it, but it seemed to me more likely that conservatives would coalesce behind Scott Walker, who had battled the Left so successfully as governor of Wisconsin.

Walker seemed a near-perfect choice — a successful two-term governor with a solid record of policy achievements in a Midwestern “swing” state — and so, when Trump came riding down that escalator in June 2015, my reaction could best be described as mild amusement. Like a lot of other people, I thought Trump’s celebrity candidacy would be a flash in the pan, basically an effort to get himself a book deal, and I didn’t take it seriously until one afternoon in late August or early September, when I got a call from my old campaign-trail buddy Pete Da Tech Guy. Pete was out covering a Trump rally in New Hampshire and told me, “Stacy, this Trump thing is for real. You should see this crowd!”

Trump in New Hampshire, September 2015

From that moment, a lot of dangers began to become apparent to me. The worst-case scenario was that the GOP Establishment would somehow find a way to stop the Trump grassroots juggernaut and that he’d run as a third-party independent, splitting the GOP coalition and resulting in the ultimate nightmare: President Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On the other hand, of course, Trump might win the nomination but then flame out in November and . . . President Hillary Rodham Clinton.

At the time I got the phone call from Pete, however, everything in the future was still a matter of speculation. After the first GOP debate, an August 2015 Rasmussen Reports poll of likely Republican primary voters had Trump at 17%, followed by Marco Rubio (10%), Jeb Bush (10%), Walker (9%), Carly Fiorina (9%), Ben Carson (8%) and Ted Cruz (7%).

Then in late September, a few days after the second Republican debate, Scott Walker announced he was quitting the campaign. Walker did so while encouraging other GOP candidates “to consider doing the same so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner.” In other words, Walker’s exit from the campaign was an anti-Trump gesture, but because others refused to heed his advice, the Republican opposition to Trump remained divided among multiple candidates. Later it came down to Rubio supporters and Cruz supporters pointing their fingers at each other: “Your guy needs to drop out!” “No, your guy needs to drop out!”

All this I observed with cynical detachment, having made my peace with the primary voters deciding who the candidate would be, and watching as Trump stomped his various rivals the way Godzilla stomped Tokyo. In July 2016, I reported from the Republican convention in Cleveland:

“America is a nation of believers, dreamers, and strivers that is being led by a group of censors, critics, and cynics,” Trump said near the end of his hour-plus address to an enthusiastic crowd at Quicken Loans Arena. “Remember, all of the people telling you that you can’t have the country you want, are the same people telling you that I wouldn’t be standing here tonight.”
Indeed, in the past year, Trump success has confounded the cynics and critics who at first did not take his campaign seriously. The same doubters, including many conservative pundits, subsequently panicked when Trump’s populist campaign caught fire with primary voters who ignored the pundits and voted for the billionaire businessman who promised to put a stop to illegal immigration. Trump took special aim at “elites in media” who he said are “lining up behind the campaign of my opponent.”
Indeed, liberals reacted with alarm to Trump’s speech. Former MSNBC personality Melissa Harris-Perry walked out 10 minutes into his speech, declaring “I left early because I was afraid.” CNN personality Sally Kohn seemed traumatized, moaning on Twitter: “The problem is, this speech seems believable and convincing, especially in a vacuum. I’m scared.” On NBC, former Bush aide Nicolle Wallace announced, “The Republican Party that I worked for for two decades died in this room tonight.”
Of course, the GOP couldn’t beat Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012, and none of the regular Republican candidates could beat Trump for the nomination this year, so what were the chances that a Nicolle Wallace-approved Republican could have defeated Hillary Clinton this year? Tired of predictable losers, GOP primary voters this year gambled on Trump who doesn’t like to lose – and he’s tired of seeing America lose.

Indeed, Republican voter had taken a gamble. When the Access Hollywood tapes were released in October 2016, I believed we were once again doomed, but on Election Night, we watched the results come in and laughed at seeing Democrats cry “the tears of unfathomable sadness.”

Do you remember the insane reactions? Do you remember the “traumatized” students at Yale University? Do you remember the professor at Rutgers whose unhinged Twitter rant landed him in Bellevue Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation? In my lifetime, no election result has produced the kind of emotional shock to the establishment as did Trump’s victory in 2016. The candidate I hadn’t taken seriously — and who I’d actively disliked the first time I saw him speak at CPAC back in 2011 — had somehow harnessed the energy of grassroots populism in such a way that not even the worst scandal could stop him.

This happened despite all the “experts” saying it couldn’t possibly happen. Trump won without the support of most “conservative” pundits, and with such publications as National Review openly opposing him. As for me, I was merely an observer who had decided (what now seems genius in hindsight) to take a wait-and-see stance about the primaries at the outset of the campaign and let voters decide for themselves. Politics is a team sport and, at the end of the day, I’m a team player.

What about the Nicolle Wallace types? When she said at the convention in Cleveland that the party she worked for had “died” during Trump’s acceptance speech, a lot of us probably said, “Yea! We killed it!” During the Obama years, the GOP Establishment had started looking a lot like “controlled opposition,” and Nicolle Wallace didn’t seem to mind that at all. She was happy to cede the White House to the Democrats, and the only “Republicans” she would support in 2016 were tedious moderates like Jeb Bush who could be counted on to lose to Hillary Clinton.


Trump voters can congratulate ourselves on that accomplishment, at least. We’ve been called all kinds of names — deplorables, white supremacists, Russian agents, insurrectionists, “election deniers” — but the fact remains, we’re still here, and Hillary is still not president.

Many of us were not eager for 2024 to be a Biden-Trump rematch, but that’s what the GOP primary voters wanted, so here we are again, and what are the odds? November’s still more than seven months away, and a lot of things could happen between now and then, but all in all, the prospects are hopeful. As of today, Biden’s job approval is hovering around 40%, which makes you wonder about the mental health of anybody who thinks Joe is doing a good job, but historically speaking, Biden’s approval ratings are well below any recent incumbent’s at this point in their term, and Democrats are pushing the panic button.

However much you may value your political independence, or your commitment to abstract principles, the reality is that we live in a two-party system, and in that binary universe, you have to come to grips with the fact that you’re a Republican Party Reptile: “At some point, you have to join the team that you’re on.” And I still think it’s a winning team.


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