At first it was exciting. If you were an establishment GOP activist, you might have had to hold your nose on a daily basis, but there is no doubt that when Donald Trump descended the gilded escalator into the lobby of his fabled Manhattan hotel in 2015 and announced his presidential candidacy, he injected sorely needed energy (and money) into a Republican Party that had lost steam after George W. Bush and had to endure eight years of the dreaded Barack Obama.
While his brash and gaudy new-money style was repulsive to many country-club Republicans, they were nonetheless excited at the prospect of the GOP firmly establishing itself as the party of the white working class whose grievances and political erogenous zones Trump stroked at every turn.
And the Orange Man promised to continue the Reagan-Bush tradition of tax cuts and conservative judges. He also proclaimed that, “If I get elected, you may get bored with winning.” What could possibly go wrong?
But after narrowly defeating the Hillary Industrial Complex six years ago, all Trump did was lose: first the House of Representatives in 2018, then the White House and the Senate in 2020. Most of his handpicked candidates for this year’s competitive midterm and statewide races – a ragtag collection of Trump loyalists and election deniers – went down in flames, allowing the Democrats to retain control of the Senate. One of those candidates, Leora Levy, received an endorsement from Trump in her campaign to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Levy, a socialite and GOP fundraiser, lost by nearly 15 points.
Add to that Trump’s problematic personality, his rude and preposterous statements, and his propensity for lawbreaking that resulted in a violent insurrection to nullify the certification of an election he lost, and you have an untenable situation for those who reluctantly supported him in the first place.
It is an article of faith that Trump’s hulking presence has harmed GOP efforts in Connecticut and elsewhere. Still, most elected Republican officials and candidates for office in Connecticut have been reluctant to distance themselves too much from Trump, presumably for fear of losing the votes of his core group of supporters. After all, Trump got nearly 41% of the vote in our state in 2016 and, even after subsequent transgressions too numerous to mention, his share only declined a couple of percentage points four years later.
Enter two former state GOP lawmakers. John McKinney and Len Fasano, both ex-Senate Republican leaders, penned an op-ed in the Hartford Courant last week entitled, “Republicans must reject Donald Trump as a candidate. Here’s why.” Not coincidentally, neither is a current office holder or a candidate — and neither were critical of Trump’s actual policies.
McKinney made an unsuccessful run for the GOP nomination for governor, losing by 12 points to Tom Foley in a 2014 primary, and Fasano retired two years ago. Both are now attorneys in private practice and do not need the support of Trump’s devotees in order to be successful at what they do.
“For former President Donald Trump, any policy success has been completely overshadowed by his divisiveness,” they wrote. “His juvenile and disrespectful behavior is shameful. It’s behavior that our party needs to reject.”
The two men noted that when Trump is confronted with dissention, “he does not respond with tough, bold or common-sense arguments. Unless there is total and absolute agreement with his ideas, he lashes out like a spoiled child, not a leader.”
And their op-ed was published before Trump posted a statement on his social media platform calling for the “termination” of portions of the United States Constitution that do not serve his needs. Trump later issued a second statement denying having said what he did in the first. I can only imagine what McKinney and Fasano, two level-headed men who respect state and federal institutions, would have had to say about such fascist instincts.
Ever since I ran unsuccessfully on the Republican ticket for Planning and Zoning Commission in my town more than a dozen years ago, I’ve been told that having an R next to your name is a turn-off to a high percentage of the electorate in many Connecticut towns — largely because of the unpopularity of then-President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. I’m an unaffiliated voter but ran on the GOP ticket with the blessings of the Republican Town Committee because they needed a candidate and I did not want to bother schlepping all over town collecting the signatures required for an unaffiliated bid.
McKinney and Fasano wrote that, largely because of Trump, a similar phenomenon has occurred recently on the state level. They noted that, as recently as 2017, party control of the state Senate was tied at 17-17 and over the next two years much progress was made in setting the state on a strong fiscal footing.
“With that even divide, we passed the strongest financial stability measures in a generation,” they wrote of the General Assembly. “Those protections yielded record-breaking surpluses, budget reserve funds and are paying down the state’s unfunded liabilities.”
With a boost from the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, which issued a 32-page report of recommendations, and with the strong urging of Republicans, the General Assembly eventually passed what McKinney and Fasano called “the strongest financial stability measures in a generation,” leading to surpluses, budget reserve funds and paying down the state’s unfunded liabilities.
Still, the GOP lost seats in the 2018 elections, even though the incumbent president was not on the ballot, mostly because, as the two men surmised, “The anger people had for Trump was taken out on local Republicans running for office.”
This is precisely to the point. Unlike the GOP in Washington, Connecticut Republicans actually care about fiscal responsibility and living within our means. It is a popular myth that Republican presidents and members of Congress are more fiscally responsible than Democrats. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush turned a blind eye to deficit spending at every turn. Generally speaking, Washington Democrats tax and spend. Republicans cut taxes, then borrow and spend.
Most recently, after two years of Donald Trump and Republican control of both houses of Congress, with a growing economy and just before the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head, Trump’s deficit numbers were racing past Obama’s, as of February 2020. The simple fact is that both parties in Washington care about fiscal responsibility only when the other is in power.
Nevertheless, McKinney and Fasano are onto something and those of us who think having at least two competitive parties is essential for a healthy democracy should applaud them for doing what other Republicans are evidently afraid to do.