For decades, the two major political parties in the United States have had pretty clear identities. The Republican Party was made up of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and foreign policy hawks. The Democratic Party had a dominant establishment wing (promoting free-market capitalism with a safety net) with occasional shouts and murmurs from the more progressive members of the party.
The 2016 election upended that, particularly in the GOP. Donald Trump swept through the primary and ultimately the general election, often espousing views that bore little resemblance to those of traditional Republicans. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders — an independent who identifies as a Democratic socialist — won 43 percent of the popular vote in the Democratic primary.
In the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast’s new mini-series “Party Time,” we try to get a sense of where the two parties are heading. Throughout February, we’ll be talking to lawmakers, strategists and stakeholders who hold different viewpoints within the parties. We want to know how Republicans are going to govern and how Democrats are going to play the role of the opposition party and try to win future elections.
In the first episode, we hear from people more closely allied with Trump: Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee; Mark Krikorian, executive director of a think tank that supports reduced immigration; and former Trump campaign strategist Barry Bennett. Here is a partial transcript of Galen Druke and Clare Malone’s conversation with Bennett, who now runs Avenues Strategies with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. We talked about Trump’s governing style and how it will square with congressional Republicans. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Galen Druke: You have a pretty conservative Congress, and [President Trump] has broken with them on things like trade, immigration, government spending, Russia, nuclear proliferation — some pretty fundamental things that are part of what we know as the Party of Reagan. How is Trump going to smooth out that relationship?
Barry Bennett: I think the party has changed a great deal. You mentioned Ronald Reagan. Well, that party isn’t here, and I’m not sure that Ronald Reagan could win a Republican primary today, to tell you the truth. Things have changed. And I think most members of Congress, they were all up last cycle and they all saw it firsthand, that America is pretty angry. Especially our base is very angry. And so there’s some flexibility for them to adopt these new policies.
Druke: But the argument that the party has fundamentally changed from those conservative principles, you would think that other politicians more in line with Trump would’ve been elected in the past cycle if that was the case. But Trump stands apart. A lot of people who back the conservative principles of a Reagan type were still elected this past cycle, right?
Bennett: Well, if you look at the three senators that should’ve won but lost in Nevada, New Hampshire and in Illinois, they all were quite public about distancing themselves from Trump, and in the end, they needed Trump voters to get them across the line. The Freedom Caucus is going to vote for the Trump agenda. I don’t think there’s a big problem there. And Trump is going to bend towards them when they have ideas on policy. But it’s these people who want to obstruct the Trump agenda, those are the people that are going to be in trouble.
Clare Malone: Trump has a pretty low approval rating coming in. He is the most unpopular person to be elected president, and there are studies that show unpopular presidents have a harder time getting their agendas passed through Congress. Do you think there is going to be any tempering to get down to brass tacks with Congress, knowing that he has an uphill battle to get his agenda through?
Bennett: I think that a 42 percent or 43 percent approval rating is probably the new normal. The country is so divided that it’s just hard to imagine until the economy really comes back that there’s going to be a lot of unity, so I’m not worried about the approval rating. Political science has been wrong for the last two years. Remember, Donald Trump’s approval rating inside the Republican Party is astronomical. So there’s no room for anyone in the party to find some other place in the party to separate themselves from him.
Malone: One thing people have been talking about a lot the past couple of days are the steps that the administration has taken to tamp down on what actions the EPA can take — to stop putting out grants, to stop putting out press releases. And there’s been false information given at press briefings. Is that sort of behavior at odds with the idea that Trump was going to be a straight-talking “drain the swamp” messenger, if he’s trying to tamp down government information?
Bennett: Listen, we all have to give them a few days to get their sea legs. As we sit here today, there are very few political appointees in each of the departments. And they’re all grappling to find out where the restroom key is. So it’s going to take a little while. We gotta give them a couple of weeks, if not a month or so, to get their sea legs and to figure this stuff out. We frankly know more about [President Trump’s] policies than we ever did about George W. Bush’s policies going in. Because he’s been talking about them nonstop with the media for two years.
Druke: I think you’re talking about policy, and the question is more about the government’s transparency with information. Yes, what he’s done so far hasn’t been particularly surprising. What I think is more concerning to observers is the way that the government is handling information. So, to give another example, [White House press secretary] Sean Spicer would not say in a press briefing what the unemployment rate was. Now there are key Republican constituencies, like the business community, that rely on information like that in order to do business. So how are the public, the business community, scientists, journalists going to trust the Trump administration if they’re not going to be forthcoming with government information?
Bennett: Of course, everybody knows that the unemployment rate is calculated by the Department of Commerce, but it’s not the true unemployment rate. The labor participation rate is at an all-time low. And so people aren’t being counted because they gave up looking. That’s what Sean was talking about. We haven’t changed the definition of the unemployment rate yet. Perhaps we ought to, but what’s the unemployment rate? Well, call the Department of Commerce, Labor Statistics. They’ll tell you.
Druke: That’s a nuance that can be described in a press briefing, but that’s not the way it was treated. So far, this administration has been pretty opaque and not forthcoming with information like that and has questioned things like whether or not there’s massive, million-person-scale voter fraud. When that’s coming out of the executive branch, don’t you think that business leaders and journalists and the average public is going to be worried about the integrity of data and information?
Bennett: No. I mean, here we are hours after the inauguration, not weeks. And I don’t think that … if anything, the market went up. It’s gone up, up and up. So maybe the lack of information is helping the economy. I don’t know. I think that’s silly, but still someone told Donald Trump that there were obviously illegal votes taking place. We probably should have a full-scale investigation, not an investigation, that sounds like a criminal investigation.
Malone: But there’s no evidence for it.
Bennett: But an exploration of who voted and who was registered to vote and who should have voted, because we all know there are people who voted who shouldn’t vote. There are also people who voted a couple of times. I don’t know if that’s millions, thousands or tens …
Bennett: But we should probably find that answer.
Druke: I mean, that’s a little out of left field.
Bennett: The government has just ignored that for years.
Druke: That’s a little out of left field: the idea that a lack of information could actually help the economy. A fundamental of the free market is having good information.
Bennett: No one’s not acknowledging what the unemployment rate is.
Druke: Do you have advice for the Trump administration on being more transparent with data?
Bennett: Yeah, all the typical data that’s being released is being released through a process that hasn’t been altered. You’re still going to see the once-a-month national unemployment rate, the state unemployment rates and all that kind of stuff. The economic indicators come out through a process that the administration really can’t alter the numbers. That’s all going to happen on a regular basis.
Malone: Some of the stuff that we’ve been talking about with bad numbers or assertions from the White House briefing room without any evidence — a lot of it seems to get to this idea of trust in government. You said perhaps having less information will help with governing. If he says that everything is fake news and everything is a bad stat, does that ultimately — two years, three years down the line, no one’s going to believe anything is credible when it comes from the White House briefing room?
Bennett: No. If you think today, or last month, that the American people trust the government, I think you’re totally mistaken. Trust in the government has been at an all-time low now for quite a few years. Not only have they given up hope in their own personal economic situation, they’ve also come to believe that the government can’t or won’t help them. So there’s not a lot of trust in government as we sit here today. I think what they want to see is a leader of the government who actually does what he says he’s going to do. And so, I think when he goes to DHS and announces that, “Here are the immigration reforms and the wall construction” and that kind of stuff, that actually builds trust that he’s going to do what he said he’s going to do.
Malone: Barry, how do you think Trump will quantify or prove his accomplishments? Is it just him asserting, “This is what the unemployment rate is”? There’s a difference between signing an executive order and having something actually come to fruition.
Bennett: Well, I don’t think that any president can quantify it themselves. It’s going to be what the voters feel. And if you see jobs coming back, if you see the risk of losing your job seems to be dissipated, then you’re going to get excited. And I think part of this constant news flow that’s happened ever since the election where people are announcing new jobs and that kind of stuff, there’s a hopefulness that has returned. You know, the stock market hitting 20,000, all that kind of stuff. Those are all positive indicators. But we need some real GDP in this country and the only way to heal a country that is totally divided is have them worry a lot less about their personal situation. Right now, they’re all struggling, and they are blaming the government.
Malone: You’re a strategist, and I want to ask about whether or not Trump’s candidacy is replicable down ballot with other Republican candidates, finding mini-Trumps to be in state legislatures and down-ballot offices.
Bennett: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think there are other Trumps out there. I think this was an anomaly. I remember when Bill Clinton went to New Hampshire and said, “I feel your pain,” and a lot of my friends snickered that that was a silly thing to say. But Donald Trump not only said he felt their pain but that he was angry about it. So that was a unique moment in time. You know, I think two years from now, if the party is not cohesive and delivering some results, then they’re going to be angry at us. We’ve got an opportunity to do some things, to turn the country around. If we don’t do it, if it’s all empty rhetoric and no results, then it doesn’t matter what kind of candidates are going to run, we’re going to lose.
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