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From The Tea Party To Trump: The GOP In The 2010s




HARRY SMITH: Campaign 2010 proved to be an historic election for the Republican Party and a decisive defeat for President Obama and many of his fellow Democrats.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sadly, the American dream is dead.

MITT ROMNEY: Here's what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.

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That's the past 10 years in Republican politics in 41 seconds. And it's been quite a ride, from the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 to the dominance of Donald Trump now. And as we enter a new decade and another presidential election year, let's take a few moments to talk about the state of the Grand Old Party and how we got here.

Liam Donovan is a veteran of Republican campaigns. He concentrated on the Senate, and he's now at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell.

Liam Donovan, welcome to the program.

LIAM DONOVAN: Thanks for having me, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Tea Party - capital T, capital P - was, on its face, a reaction to President Obama's moves to stop the 2009 economic crisis, some of which were continuations of Bush administration policies. What did you see the Tea Party as at the time?

DONOVAN: At the time, it was a very high-minded - you know, certainly driven by the energy of populism of some of the grievance related to some of the things that were seen as being bailouts for other people but not for conservatives. But it was definitely dressed up in sort of high-minded ideology. And part of it was a reformation against the sense that Republicans had lost their way and that was why they lost in 2008. And so it was very much a matter of purity and being the most conservative.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. A lot of people also see the roots of the racial resentment that has animated Donald Trump supporters in the Tea Party. There have been studies that showed that many in the Tea Party were more likely to hold racist beliefs - there were racist signs at some of the rallies - and that it was maybe a convenient avenue to oppose the first black president as opposed to the sort of high-minded thing that you're describing.

DONOVAN: It's tricky. I think whatever there was of that was mostly at a subconscious level to the extent that it existed. There's this dynamic of political correctness...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I say this because, you know, the deficit hawks have been pretty quiet under this administration...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...As the deficit has ballooned while we have a decent economy.

DONOVAN: Absolutely. Well, part of it is it's a lot easier to be super conservative - you know, we got to cut everything - when you don't have the power to do that and you can rail on the other side.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Despite the energy of the Tea Party movement, Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, and he beat Mitt Romney. And the Republican Party did some soul-searching, and they published a report. And I want to play a bit of our coverage of that.


MARA LIASSON: The report is pretty brutal. The Republican Party is losing elections, it says, because of a widespread perception that it doesn't care about people. Young voters, it goes on to say, are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents. And as RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said at the Press Club this morning, it's even worse than that.


REINCE PRIEBUS: There's no one reason we lost. Our message was weak. Our ground game was insufficient. We weren't inclusive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We weren't inclusive. The party was going to spend millions on minority outreach. There were going to be GOP swearing-in teams to contact brand-new voters as soon as they became citizens. That was 2013. How did this report land at the time? Do you remember?

DONOVAN: Well, there was a consensus in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 election that had everyone from Sean Hannity embracing comprehensive immigration reform to billionaire Donald Trump decrying Mitt Romney as not being inclusive enough. And so I think at the time, it very much made sense. And the autopsy recommended all these things to broaden Republican support.

But I do think there was an immediate backlash against this because you had a tension dating back even before the decade, and it's probably best looked at if you look at whether the path was McCain or Palin. And Palin, in a lot of ways, was a proto-Trump and a proto-Tea Partier. So I think if you thought that Romney lost because he was too harsh, then you subscribe to the autopsy. If you thought he lost because he was not conservative enough, which I mentioned was - one of the abiding senses of the Tea Party movement was, we weren't pure enough; we weren't conservative enough - then that was sort of the dichotomy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I wonder - what is the lesson for the GOP now? I mean, they had a disappointing 2018 election. Women are moving away from the party. We've seen that in recent polling. The white base is getting smaller. But that base is in states that matter, like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

DONOVAN: Well, I mean, you know, for the immediate future, they're inexorably tied to this president. But I think looking toward the future, you look at some of these younger senators, particularly, who are sort of testing out what Republican Party should look like in the years beyond the Trump presidency. You're talking about Senator Marco Rubio. He's built in some of the Trumpian themes, particularly with regard to America first. I think if you look at Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri, he's taking some really interesting sort of contrarian positions related to some of the Big Tech issues. These senators can take some of the things that Trump has tapped into among the voters and build them out with maybe some appeal that could get the establishment and the suburbs back involved.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Liam Donovan, former GOP staffer, now a consultant.

Thank you very much. And happy New Year.

DONOVAN: Thanks, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.