Ever since Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president, national headlines have predicted an epic fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party sometime in the very near future. In this corner is the big-mouthed New York billionaire untethered to any particular policy besides winning. In the other are the conscience-driven, high-minded intellectuals of modern-day conservatism, who see themselves as the keepers of the party flame.
Two ideologies will enter the fight, but only one can emerge, and the good money up to now has been on the conservatives. After all, they have the experience, the knowledge and each other to count on, while Trump has only himself.
But what was supposed to be a Washington power struggle for the ages has turned out to be more like a used-car sale, with the original owners handing their keys over to the next guy, relieved to unload the thing before it breaks down in the middle of nowhere.
The conservatives who were expected to brawl with Trump to the death for their party’s conscience have mostly given up fight — either leaving the field or silencing their own objections to the president to win smaller victories they’ve been wanting for years. With Speaker Paul Ryan’s announcement that he, too, will retire at the end of this year, he has all but made it official. The conscience of conservatives is completely vanishing.
One of the first to fall was Sen. Jeff Flake, a respected conservative in the Senate and vocal Trump objector from the beginning. Thanks to his high-profile feud with the president and the purple-trending nature of his home state of Arizona, Flake said he came to believe that there may be no place for a Goldwater conservative in a party like Trump’s GOP. Instead of testing that theory in a primary battle and going out in a blaze of glory, Flake announced that he would step aside and forego the next election entirely.
As for retiring Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, he said he felt his most consequential work as a senator could come before the end of 2018.
And then there are Ryan’s House colleagues — two dozen in all — who have decided to leave Washington behind. Many are conservatives, some are moderates, but nearly all are showing the exhaustion that comes from fighting with your own family.
It’s entirely normal in politics to fight for something you believe in. But it’s another thing to have to battle a president from your own party in the process.
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Giving his reasons
In explaining his decision, the relentlessly positive Ryan said that with the passage of the tax cut bill, he’d accomplished much of what he wanted as speaker, just two years into the job. He added that if he didn’t leave now, he’d be missing out on his children’s last moments of being just that — children — before they were off to college and beyond.
When Ryan was asked whether Trump had factored into his decision, he said absolutely not. Quite the opposite, in fact. “I’m grateful to the president for giving us the opportunity to do big things,” Ryan told reporters. “It makes me satisfied that I’ve made a big difference and he’s given us that chance, so I’m grateful to him for that.”
Ryan’s description of working with Trump was as honest an answer as you’ll find about how once-vocal conservatives skipped the battle with the president for the soul of the Republican Party and went straight to a surprisingly comfortable and totally transactional relationship that allows both sides to get what they want, to a point.
In exchange for their loyal support of the president, from the Access Hollywood tape controversy and beyond, religious conservatives have found a president ready to nominate the conservative judges they suggest themselves.
At the cost of historic deficits, fiscal conservatives found a man eager to sign off on business-friendly tax cuts — the bigger the better.
And the Freedom Caucus found a leader willing not only to talk to them, but to give them equal or better billing with GOP leadership in negotiations over policy they’ve battled out for years.
But in exchange for those wins, conservatives may have given up something larger.
Losing their grip
Ever since the late Sen. Barry Goldwater wrote his book “Conscience of a Conservative,” Republicans have insisted that a benevolent quality was central to conservatism — that a conscience was infusing not only the policies they proposed, but the conservative movement itself.
For every tax cut proposed or entitlement reformed before the Trump presidency, conservatives made the argument that theirs was the course to take, the righteous side to fight for. The idea brought countless conservatives into public office. It won elections. It was the underlying message of Ryan’s entire career. And now it feels more endangered than dinosaurs.
There are, of course, people of good conscience left in the Republican Party and on Capitol Hill. But how much longer can they last straddling the line between getting what they want on the small stuff and losing everything that once underpinned the integrity of their professional lives?
The cost or benefit of those decisions to Republicans’ fortunes will be easily measured after the midterm elections. How many seats will they win or lose? Will they hold the Senate? Lose the House? That part will be easy to decipher. But the larger effect on the party and the conservative movement generally will be unknowable for years.
Will the GOP still attract the good guys and optimists as it has in the past? Can a moral movement continue without morality? Can conservatives continue without a conscience? Those are the costs we won’t know for years. And by then, it will be too late for Republicans to change course.