Trump Repeats Obama’s Mistake – The Atlantic

Sign up for The Decision, a newsletter featuring our 2024 election coverage.

Donald Trump has long detested Barack Obama and sought to present himself as the opposite of his presidential predecessor in every way. But in his takeover of the Republican National Committee, he risks echoing one of Obama’s biggest political mistakes.

Last night, Trump’s handpicked leadership of the RNC took charge and conducted a purge. The new regime, led by the new chair, Michael Whatley; the vice chair, Lara Trump; and the chief of staff, Chris LaCivita, fired about 60 employees—about a quarter of the staff—as part of “streamlining.” The “bloodbath” includes members of the communications, data, and political departments. Insiders told Politico they anticipate that existing contracts with vendors will be voided.

When the new leaders were announced last month, I suggested that the GOP was ceasing to function as a political party, and becoming another subsidiary of Trump Inc. But there is another way to view it. For years now, the RNC has struggled. Republicans might have lost the 2016 presidential election if not for the emergence of Trump, who shook up the party’s longtime platform and forged a new coalition, turning out voters no other recent candidate had. Since then, however, Republicans have continued to lag, even with Trump juicing turnout. Republicans got slammed in the 2018 midterms, lost the 2020 presidential race, and missed expectations in 2022. Special elections have been a Democratic playground. The RNC is entering the 2024 election with a third of the Democratic National Committee’s reserves.

From this perspective, it’s about time that Trump took charge and cleared out the deadwood. Allies such as Charlie Kirk and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene were jubilant at the overhaul. Although Trump’s appointments of his daughter-in-law and a top campaign aide are unusual, nominees typically take over the campaign apparatus ahead of a presidential election, the better to align aims.

Truth be told, Trump can’t really distance himself from the recent mismanagement. The deposed chair, Ronna McDaniel, was Trump’s pick in 2017, and his main complaint about her is that she was insufficiently compliant. If Trump just wants more of the same, that’s bad news for the party. Trump critics within the GOP also fear that he intends to use the party coffers as a personal defense fund, underwriting his substantial legal bills. Last week, the committee pointedly rejected a proposal by an old-line member to prevent that.

Let’s take the best-case scenario for Republicans, though. In the past, the RNC seemed like the professionals compared with the chaotic, amateurish Trump campaigns of 2016 and 2020. (There’s a reason Trump resorted to appointing RNC Chair Reince Priebus as his first White House chief of staff, despite Priebus representing the establishment Trump hated.) This year, however, the Trump campaign has seemed organized and disciplined, and LaCivita is reportedly a big part of that. National committees tend to be bloated and old-fashioned. A more focused, streamlined operation could fix what ails the GOP.

The problem is that Trump sees his own success and the success of the Republican Party as bound up together. But some things that are good for Trump are not good for the Republican Party over the long run. This is where Obama offers a cautionary tale.

When he won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Obama was an insurgent; the DNC had long been dominated by allies of Hillary Clinton, whom he defeated in the primary. He wasn’t as deeply embedded in the old way of doing things. Obama viewed the Democratic Party as essentially a national organization, with the goal of supporting his political goals and his reelection. Upon winning the presidency, he moved key DNC functions to Chicago, his hometown and political base, despite the protests of party insiders who worried that downballot efforts would be overshadowed by Obama’s reelection campaign. He also created a group outside the DNC, Organizing for America, to support his political movement.

The result was a badly weakened DNC. The national focus led to a neglect of other elections. After Senator Ted Kennedy died, Democrats managed to lose a 2010 special election for his seat in Massachusetts, of all places—a failure that some Democrats blamed on the national party. The loss delayed the passage of the Affordable Care Act and required congressional Democrats to water it down to pass it.

The Bay State special was a harbinger. As Matt Yglesias calculated in 2017, the Obama years saw Democrats lose 11 Senate seats, 62 House seats, and 12 governorships. The damage was especially bad at the state level. Democrats lost nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures, the worst loss since Herbert Hoover dragged down the GOP. Republicans captured 29 separate chambers and gained 10 new trifectas—control of both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. All of this happened at the same time that Democratic presidential candidates won the national popular vote in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 presidential elections (as they would again in 2020).

Democrats, including Obama, suffered for their missteps. As the Obamacare experience shows, it’s harder to push a policy agenda when you lose elections. Losing control of the Senate makes it difficult to confirm judges, especially to crucial spots such as the Supreme Court—just ask Justice Merrick Garland. And implementing policy is challenging if governors and state Houses are working against you.

An excessive focus on presidential races is also the danger of Trump’s RNC takeover. He and his aides have announced that, like Obama, they see the party committee as basically an instrument for the presidential election. “Our mission is straightforward: maximize the Republican Party’s resources to get President Trump elected,” LaCivita told The New York Times last month. Echoing Obama’s Chicago move, the RNC is reportedly already moving most of its operations to Palm Beach, Florida, near Trump’s Mar-a-Lago headquarters. All of this makes sense. Trump is a narcissist who can’t and won’t separate his self-interest from the party’s or the nation’s.

Slashing the national footprint of the RNC may weaken the party at lower levels. Several state parties are already a mess. The chair of the Florida GOP was recently ousted amid a sex scandal. Michigan’s GOP chair, a fervent Trump backer, was also deposed after a tumultuous stint, and the state party is reportedly broke. The Arizona GOP also recently lost its chair and has been racked by feuds. But more MAGA is unlikely to be the solution to these problems, because infighting and obsession with Trump’s election denial have been at the center of several blowups. The most effective wing of the GOP apparatus right now, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has succeeded by managing to create some insulation from Trump, allowing it to select strong candidates. In 2020, Republican congressional candidates mostly ran ahead of Trump.

And even if Trump’s theory of the RNC works out in 2024, what happens next? Trump will not always be the president or the nominee. Someday, Republicans will need to choose a new leader, and they may be left with only a shell of a party committee, gutted and stretched to be part of Trump’s personal election apparatus. It’s a hard and long road to rebuilding from there. Just ask a Democrat.