- Kellyanne’s Hamlet Moment: Donald Trump’s campaign launched-ish last weekend with two stops in the early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina. I wrote extensively last summer about the campaign’s org chart and management philosophy: small and flat and with Trump calling all the shots. So many of the cast from last season—like Hope Hicks, Ivanka, Brad Parscale and Jason Miller—are sitting this one out, apparently harboring little interest in returning. But Kellyanne Conway has played a bit of a two-step—acting as a top advisor to Trump, albeit unpaid, and a Fox News contributor, where she can spread the Trump gospel while also calling out strategies she sees as ineffectual. That’s prompted some to wonder which costume is a foil: TV news talking head or boomerang I-Just-Can’t-Quit-You campaign operative?But I think it makes zero sense for Conway to officially join the campaign. It would deprive her not just of direct revenue from Fox News, but all the derivative economic opportunities that flow from it. The campaign needs to preserve cash since they launched so early in the cycle with big dollar donors not coughing it up like they once did. Having Conway on the outside as an advisor and evangelist is a boon for a candidate who is not getting airtime on mainstream outlets. Plus, it would essentially be a demotion for Conway, who would likely be forced into a power-sharing structure that includes Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita. They might be happy to share it, just because there is strength in numbers, but Trump will almost certainly obliterate any sort of organizational hierarchy. It seems like a no-brainer, and I think she’ll sit this one out from the green room.
- Republicans Are Coming for the Dems’ Bench: With all their new oversight power, House Republicans are ready to commence the season for Democratic public humiliation. After months of lip-licking, we know the obvious frontline target: Joe Biden, via his son Hunter, and Anthony Fauci, whose oversight of the government’s Covid response has become a sad Rorschach test for our modern politics. Alas, on Wednesday Oversight Chair James Comer will launch his mission to expose “rampant waste of taxpayer dollars in Covid Relief systems.”This is surely an opportunity for Republicans to scrutinize how Democratic governors—particularly those with putative White House aspirations, like J.B. Pritzker, Gavin Newsom, and Gretchen Whitmer—spent relief money, especially during the most frantic weeks of the pandemic when state governors were under immense pressure to put protective funds to work. The tenor of the investigations will coalesce around fiscal responsibility, of course, regarding the American Rescue Plan. And you might expect gestures towards impartiality to come in, zeroing in on less popular G.O.P. figures, like former Maryland governor Larry Hogan, who is “not beloved by our people” as one congressional Republican put it to me. Of course this is a dangerous road since Covid money was splashed around everywhere. Even Marjorie Taylor Greene accepted $183,504 in PPP loans before she became a member of Congress.
- Oversight Lessons Learned: Some Republican lawmakers have been thinking hard about the use of subpoenas and whether the tool, despite being a cynical news cycle magic wand, didn’t always work out well for their Democratic counterparts in terms of actually accruing information. This cohort has articulated the perspective that subpoenas are effectively a waste of time: they stall momentum since being held in contempt is just a way to run out the clock before the next Congress. Instead, an emerging preference centers on interviewing subjects of investigation, making those conversations as meaningful and thoughtful as possible, offering the details to the committees and, if worse comes to worst, subpoenaing them later. Then again, not everyone is onboard with this thinking. CNN reports that Jim Jordan’s Judiciary committee is subpoena-happy, and planning to issue a rule by which they can issue a subpoena without consulting Democrats at all.
|Tara Palmeri: Rep. Matt Gaetz, former leader of the Never Kevins, is a CPAC mainstay. He goes every year, but has criticized Schlapp for accepting donations from corporate sponsors. Is this a real split or just politics?
Tina Nguyen: Well, it’s complicated. There’s the Schlapps and then there’s the American Conservative Union, the group that hosts CPAC, which has been around since the 1970s. It was a powerful group long before Schlapp took over, and even though he’s arguably remade CPAC around his and his wife’s interests, it’s still the lodestar of the conservative activist world. Everyone goes. Everyone has to go, if they care about networking with powerful activists. And though there’s been several attempts to create an alternate MAGA version of CPAC, no one can match its legacy and pull.
Not that MAGA world wouldn’t be happy to drive Schlapp into the wilderness wearing little more than a loincloth—it’s difficult for them to trust someone who once partnered with Google and Facebook as sponsors. The problem, as everyone knows, is that the A.C.U.’s board is stacked with handpicked Schlapp loyalists. You want to get rid of Schlapp? Easier said than done.
Tara: There has to be some reputational liability for serious 2024 candidates, though, after the assault allegation. Will we see DeSantis, Trump, or any other 2024 hopefuls on stage with Schlapp?
Tina: They’ll be on stage and probably have to speak, though I doubt they’ll want to run into each other. And Schlapp still runs the whole show. The only way anyone can actively snub Schlapp is if they have their own center of gravity. Trump, for instance, pulled out of CPAC in 2016 and was even more powerful as the invisible elephant in the room. But again, easier said than done.
Tara: How does MAGA feel about Trump’s lackluster campaign launch? Are they willing to wait for him to come out with a vengeance? Do they miss the rallies and are they skeptical, like the rest of us, that he’s even truly running?
Tina: Here’s my game theory after seven years of following this movement: Trump is at his best whenever he’s fighting. And there’s no one to fight at the moment. Why does he need to hold rallies when there’s nobody to rally people against? Biden, who’s presumably running again in 2024 but hasn’t announced, doesn’t really get the base’s blood flowing. But the narrative and the calculus changes the moment that a G.O.P. challenger steps into the race and Trump starts cluster-bombing the media with pithy nicknames. And that probably starts this summer.
In the meantime, Tara, what impact does Trump’s campaign have on McCarthy’s majority?
Tara: Well, if you’re one of the moderate Republicans from New York who was just elected, like Brandon Williams or Mike Lawler, who dethroned D.C.C.C. chair Sean Patrick Maloney, you probably don’t want Trump on the top of your ticket in 2024. I would think that down-ballot candidates in districts that Biden won would prefer a nominee like Glenn Youngkin or Chris Sununu or even a Nikki Haley, who David Drucker reports will announce next month. McCarthy has those 18 Republicans from Biden districts to thank for his majority and I’m sure they are not looking forward to the debt ceiling fight.
It could cut both ways, of course, with 2024 ticket-splitters opting to give both moderate Republicans and Biden another cycle. But clearly if the Republican majority is relying on New York and Hudson Valley voters, it’s not a great situation for the party. The future of the Republican party is not through New York. At the same time, I think nut-jobs at the top of the ticket really hurt Republicans in the last election in Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania where maybe they could have won.
Tina: Speaking of which… The debt ceiling fight is weighing on everyone: Democrats worry that the right wing could drive the country into default, while McCarthy is surely concerned about his own personal calamity if the right wing doesn’t get a scalp and decides to take his, instead. I’ve heard rumblings that Democrats could use a discharge petition to force a budget bill onto the House floor without McCarthy as long as they could come up with 218 votes. What is the likelihood of that happening?
Tara: Well, I spoke to a Democratic member on the Budget committee who sort of waved me off thinking that it’s a serious option. It has only happened once successfully in the last decade, in 2015, when House Democrats used the rare procedure to vote to extend the Export Import Bank’s charter. Before that was in 2002, for a campaign finance bill. It just takes a long time and they still haven’t heard from Hakeem Jeffries about if this is something that he wants them to start on.
It’s a long, wonky process, and Democrats would still need six moderate Republicans to join them to cross the magic 218 vote threshold. I spoke to Mike Lawler in his office last week, and when I asked him about the discharge petition, he didn’t rule it out. “For me, it’s not a function of I’m going to [vote on a bill that’s discharged by Democrats], it’s a function of working within the conference and the House,” he told me. “The White House has to realize they’re no longer a one-party rule and the president needs to be reasonable. The negotiations need to start in earnest, now.”
Of course, there are no specifics from Lawler. But, in fairness, like the rest of the conference, he hasn’t received word from McCarthy on what exactly they’re going to demand. This likely explains why McCarthy has delayed his meeting with Biden to this Wednesday. The White House is, of course, posturing, saying they refuse to negotiate (for now). Even if there are no major concessions for Republicans and a bill comes to the floor via discharge petition, I could see pressure building on moderates to vote on it, especially if it’s sitting there with 211 votes. That’s when I suspect you’ll see moderates budge.
Here’s how I predict it will go down: There will be kabuki for months, with Democrats saying they won’t negotiate with Republicans, that they want to raise the debt limit “without conditions,” and then in the end, Democrats will come up with an acceptable off-ramp or concession for the Republicans. This will probably happen right before the country is headed straight into a default around June or July. It’s interesting that Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry has already said they’re going to have to raise the debt ceiling. Now, I don’t think he would engage in a discharge petition with Democrats to get around McCarthy because they are very close, but this indicates to me that there will be many in the party seeking that off-ramp and that’s when the infighting starts with the House Freedom Caucus.
Tina, is there any likelihood that the MAGA crowd, like Andy Biggs, who repeatedly humiliated McCarthy during the speaker vote, would take that off-ramp?
Tina: There is, but it would have to involve truly meaningful concessions to the MAGA agenda. The thing about the House Freedom Caucus, and the “Taliban Twenty” in particular (I’m sure they’re secretly proud of that name), is that this class was elected to Congress from districts that fully endorse their by-whatever-means-necessary tactics.
That said, I’m not sure this is the best use of the party’s time, from a strictly political perspective. The public isn’t as bothered by the federal debt as they were in, say, 2010, when even the liberal media was fixated on the deficit and Obama created Bowles-Simpson to get the country’s finances under control. Trump, as big a deficit spender as any president in memory, recently warned Republicans not to touch Social Security or Medicare.
In fact, when I talk to my sources on the Hill and in activist conservative circles, I get the impression that they’re more focused on 1) impeaching D.H.S. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to make a statement about the border; 2) investigating the origins of Covid and the C.D.C.’s response; and 3) launching their own committee to investigate the January 6 committee.
I predict there ultimately will be fewer investigations into the Biden family than the average cable news viewer may expect. Sure, there will be some hay to be made over Hunter Biden, but there’s a sense that if Republicans attempt to wrist-slap Biden for keeping classified documents in his garage, they’ll end up strafing Trump for his own documents snafu at Mar-a-Lago, too. One scandal largely negates the other.