Former Secretary of State James Baker “is like a parable for the modern Republican Party,” said New York Times Chief White House Correspondent Peter Baker (no relation) in a recent interview promoting the biography of Baker he recently co-authored with his wife Susan Glasser.
The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III, reports that Baker, a Bush family confidant, thinks Donald Trump is “crazy.” Despite that assessment, Baker remains appreciative of the president’s tax cuts, deregulation, and judicial appointments and would like to see him reelected.
This distinguishes him from the Bushes and many veterans of the family’s two administrations. As Baker notes, George H.W. Bush voted for Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush wrote-in her son Jeb, and George W. Bush says he voted for “none of the above.”
In recent days, Marc Racicot, a former governor of Montana, former Republican Party chair and campaign chair for George W. Bush in 2004, endorsed Joe Biden, as did Bush’s first Secretary of Homeland Security, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. Ridge and Raciot joined 73 Republican national security officials who came out for Biden in August. But while there’s no shortage of Republicans who have split from Trump, the overwhelming majority of Republican voters either support the president enthusiastically or, like Baker, do so with some misgivings.
Baker’s case is especially glaring because of the contrasts between the two men–one known as a smooth operator, the other all bluster and ego. Baker excelled at wooing and cajoling, while Trump relies on insults and threats. Baker was a master of the bureaucratic game, and Trump denounces “the Deep State.”
Trump has torn down much of what the 90-year-old former White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of State built. Trump’s contempt for NATO, for instance, should be an affront to Baker who kept the alliance together at the end of the Cold War and convinced Moscow to allow a unified Germany within the alliance. Baker’s approach to managing the collapse of the Soviet Union, the creation of a post-Cold War world, and building an international coalition to defeat Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War couldn’t be more different than Trump’s cozying up to Vladimir Putin or the president’s contempt for our allies. Baker’s co-architect of that world, now deceased former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, endorsed Clinton in 2016. Colin Powell broke with the GOP in 2008 and endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential bid and Biden’s this year, even speaking at the Democratic National Convention. Yet, Baker remains loyal to the party and to the president despite Trump’s assault on his legacy.
The president frequently exaggerates the percentage of support he retains from Republican voters, but it still stands at 94 percent in the most recent Gallup poll. That’s partly because some defectors, like Powell, no longer self-identify or register as Republicans, but it still shows that many Americans will tolerate almost anything if it serves their self-interest.
When that interest is principled and genuine and of the utmost urgency, as the abortion issue is to many voters, it’s more defensible than when it’s no more than a desire to pay fewer taxes and face less regulation. Baker doesn’t have that excuse. His contentious relationship with social conservatives goes back to the earliest days of the Reagan administration when he advised the president to nominate Sandra Day O’Conner to the Supreme Court over the objections of some pro-life advocates.
Yet, social conservatives aren’t exempt from the criticism that their principles are malleable. Trump-appointed justices may overturn Roe v. Wade, but he makes a mockery of family values both in terms of his personal failings and also policies that are sure to cost lives, from his attempts to scuttle the Affordable Care Act without an alternative to countenancing the barbaric treatment of undocumented detainees.
Trump forces Republicans to make hard choices and the results are revealing.
In Baker’s case, his biographer put it this way:
I think that Baker, in some ways, is like a parable for the modern Republican Party. His struggle has been the larger party struggle with Trump, who is not their cup of tea. You know, they don’t particularly like him, they wouldn’t invite him to their country clubs, and they wouldn’t invite him to their homes for Thanksgiving dinner. But, you know, he has been successful at what Jared Kushner told me a couple weeks ago was the hostile takeover of the Republican Party. And they have found they’ve decided that they have to accommodate themselves to him for at least as long as he’s in office.
Trump’s campaign is struggling but Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight still gives a COVID-19 positive president a 21 percent chance of winning (and a 54 percent shot if Biden carries the popular vote by fewer than 3 points). Thanks to Republicans like Baker who “accommodate themselves,” it’s possible that Trump may win another term.