Even as the country is poised to debate whether President Trump deserves a second term — or should be allowed to complete his first one — Republicans still haven't settled on why he won in 2016. Is it because he staked out a set of positions on immigration, trade, and foreign policy that set him apart from the rest of the field? Or was it because the rich and famous New Yorker was himself larger than life (or at least the other presidential candidates)?
One test case is Jeff Sessions, the Republican who is running for his old Senate seat in Alabama. The former attorney general was into "Trumpism" — that is, a more populist and nationalist twist on conservatism — before Trump. As a senator, Sessions championed an immigration policy of tougher enforcement and reduced legal entries, favored making national sovereignty a bigger consideration in international trade deals, and talked about transforming the GOP into a workers party. He asked cheerfully, "How many votes does the Chamber of Commerce have?"
Yet Sessions' tenure as attorney general didn't come to an end because of his failure or unwillingness to try to implement this agenda. "This is the Trump era," he warned those expecting leniency in enforcing immigration laws. It was his perceived lack of loyalty to Trump personally, particularly his recusal in the Russia investigation, which paved the way to Robert Mueller's appointment as special counsel, that made his stay at the Justice Department short-lived.
It's a lesson Sessions seems to have learned, if an early campaign video is any indication. "When I left President Trump's Cabinet, did I write a tell-all book? No. Did I go on CNN and attack the president? Nope. Have I said a cross word about our president?" Sessions asked his constituents. "Not one time."
"The president is doing a great job for America and Alabama, and he has my strong support," Sessions concluded. And while the feeling may not be mutual, it's not a minority opinion in the Yellowhammer State. Trump received an enthusiastic welcome in Tuscaloosa last weekend at the Alabama-LSU football game. He carried the state by 28 points the last time around and would be a heavy favorite in 2020.
Consider another high-profile veteran of the Trump administration who is clearly weighing her political future. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is not a carbon copy of Trump on immigration or trade. She is particularly opposed to a less interventionist foreign policy. Haley supported Marco Rubio at the peak of his dalliances with Never Trump and expressed not too thinly veiled criticism of the future president in her 2016 Republican response to the State of the Union address.
In her new book, Haley says she was not part of an effort to undermine Trump, even though then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House chief of staff John Kelly allegedly tried to recruit her. She went further in defending Trump's phone call with the Ukrainian president that sits at the heart of the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry than many sitting Republican senators would feel comfortable doing, even as they are likely to vote to prevent his removal from office.
Haley is a throwback to the pre-Trump Republican Party, closer to Jeb and George W. Bush (and some of the people inside the executive branch who are also playing a key role in the impeachment inquiry) than the current occupant of the Oval Office. Sessions was a precursor to Trump and his first major Capitol Hill endorser. Haley left the administration voluntarily, Sessions was pushed out. Both now treat Trump as the deciding factor, not Trumpism the movement.
This isn't to say that millions of Trump's most passionate backers would not cheer Sessions' return to the Senate while many of them would be cooler to a Haley presidential candidacy. And in 2016, GOP primary voters had many choices if they wanted either orthodox Reaganite conservatism or Bushie establishment Republicanism. They still chose Trump, who railed against two decades of bipartisan trade deals, the shaky Washington consensus that tried to foist "comprehensive immigration reform" on an unwilling conservative base, and the Iraq war.
But few Trump imitators who lack his charisma, fame, or reputation for making money have fared nearly as well (though it can be argued that only now are potentially viable prospects like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, and even Donald Trump Jr. starting to seriously try). Before anyone can follow in Trump's footsteps, they have to decide how the president got to the White House in the first place.
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