February 5, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Will the GOP Split after SOTU?

That we're even asking the question is amazing.

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I continue to believe that Lindsey Graham is a normal, though cynical, politician. He’s not the “Russian asset” that his critics claim him to be. Sure, he was against Donald Trump before he was for him. But ordinary political considerations explain more about Graham’s recent behavior than kompromat does. He’s the senior senator from South Carolina. Voters in the Palmetto State really like Donald Trump. Graham is up for reelection in 2020. To support the president is to gamble with confidence.

There’s more to it. Graham, above all, is a partisan. He cares about his party more than he cares about policy, ideology or even the law. He’ll stand by the president even as Trump takes the party toward fascism. He’s not alone. The House Freedom Caucus will follow suit. To critics of conservatism, these are boom times. We have long argued that conservatism is mere cover for fascism. Trump proves the point every day.

But even though the Republicans aren’t really conservative, it means something to be seen as such. Their professional reputations as conservatives among peers and colleagues in Washington and among Republican voters back home are their greatest assets. How valuable is that? Well, valuable enough, I think, to revolt.

Consider what could happen if the president declares a state of emergency during tonight’s State of the Union address. If he invokes laws permitting him to bypass the US Congress to build an unpopular wall, the president risks splitting his party. Why?

Because in doing so, he will have abused the power of his office, thus contravening nearly a decade of effort establishing the GOP’s image as the home of “constitutional conservatism.” In doing so, he will have taken land through eminent domain from private citizens, contravening the party’s history of championing private property. In doing so, he will have brought down more pressure on Senate Republicans from blue or purple states up for reelection. Remember, Trump’s wall is truly unpopular.

Graham and the Republican leadership understand what’s at stake, and are doing what they can to prevent an intra-party crisis. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned the president privately against invoking emergency powers. He knows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can force his chamber to vote on Trump’s declaration. Such a vote would expose already-widening divisions between the president and his party. McConnell might even fear that there’s enough support to override Trump.

That’s a worst-case scenario, obviously, but there are intimations of it happening. John Cornyn told Politico this morning that he’s “running out of patience” with the administration providing Texas with hurricane relief and recovery. That’s probably true. This is a lazy president. But that also might legit cover for opposing Trump.

For his part, Graham is quietly urging the president to compromise with the Pelosi and the House Democrats, even if that means taking less money for “border security” than he prefers. Graham is openly sending a message to waffling Republicans. In his home state yesterday, Graham said: “To every Republican, if you don’t stand behind this president, we’re not going to stand behind you when it comes to the wall.”

Graham also said there could “a war within the Republican Party” if his colleagues do not support Trump’s emergency declaration. I think that’s true but with cause and effect reversed. The Republicans won’t start a civil war. Trump will. He has been. The civil war has been underway. He’s dividing the Republicans with his border wall. The Senate Republicans are scattering. And Graham is trying to hold them together.

Before you say gotcha, consider this. The only thing standing in the way of a Republican challenging this president is the rest of the Republican Party. If the party splits permanently, odds are a Republican will primary Trump. This is what happens when presidents grow weak. The midterms wounded this one. So did the government shutdown. He’s so weak that his staff has reason to humiliate him. Someone in the White House leaked to Axios his daily schedule over three months. It shows that Trump spends about 60 percent of his time tweeting and watching TV.

As long as the Republicans are united, Graham’s future is more or less secure (presuming South Carolina voters still like Trump by 2020). Things will be different should the president face a primary challenger. When this has happened in the past, incumbents prevailed in primaries but lost in the end. Graham has hitched himself to Donald Trump’s star. If it does down, Graham might end up going down with it.

—John Stoehr

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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