Republican lawmakers say they have little to no idea what President Trump’s agenda would be if he wins a second term, making it difficult for GOP candidates to coordinate campaign messages ahead of November.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last year he wanted the 2020 election to be a referendum on socialism, but instead it’s turning into a referendum on Trump, a scenario that GOP senators wanted to avoid.
Congressional Republicans say Trump spends too much time going after critics on Twitter and not enough time articulating his vision for a possible second term. They would prefer more contrasts between their party and Democrats on issues such as taxes and regulation — areas they think could be part of a winning formula in the fall.
Instead, Republican senators say there has been little discussion about what Trump’s second term would look like, other than the assumption he might have a chance to appoint another Supreme Court justice and fill other judicial vacancies.
Asked if he knew what Trump’s agenda would be if he wins reelection, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said, “Only on the Supreme Court.”
“That’s the only discussion we’ve had,” Grassley said. “The president, he’s going to put out a new list, including some of the people that are already on the list, for the Supreme Court.”
“I assume we’re going to be dealing with a U.K.-U.S. free trade agreement, Kenya-U.S. free trade agreement,” he added.
Grassley predicted Trump is “going to” speak more about his agenda in the coming months.
Another GOP senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there’s been little direction from the White House about its agenda in the event of a second term.
Asked if the president has described to Republican senators his agenda for after the election, the senator said, “No.”
The senator said that needs to change in order to give Republicans a better chance of keeping control of the White House and Senate.
“Candidates win or lose in part because of what they describe will happen if they’re elected. There are lots of reasons why people vote for or against people. One of the components is ‘If I’m elected, this is what you can expect,’ ” the senator said, adding that “there should be” a clear explanation of the president’s agenda.
That lack of clarity was on display when Fox News host Sean Hannity asked Trump in a recent interview about his plans for a second term. In response, Trump gave a lengthy answer that was short on specifics.
When Hannity asked what his priorities would be for a second term, Trump talked generally about how “the word experience is a very important word” and how he didn’t know much about Washington when he was elected. He then transitioned to slamming his former national security adviser John Bolton as “an idiot” and “a sick guy.”
The lack of an agenda just four months ahead of Election Day sparked a shower of criticisms and left GOP lawmakers shaking their heads.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) summarized his advice to Trump after the Hannity interview by saying, “Your agenda is to finish the job you started in your first term. Close the deal on fixing a broken immigration system, building a wall, and going to merit-based immigration. More judges. Keep the military strong. Energy independence, not just for this generation but every generation.”
Graham said Trump should also tout plans to deal with the debt and make sure Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.
“When that question is asked, I would like the president to be able to go back to what he’s done in his first term, say, ‘I’m going to finish the job and the new priority will be the debt,’ ” he added.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said, “The president has, if he wants to make the argument, has a really good record to talk about.”
He said if the economy continues to recover from the coronavirus shutdown and related job losses, Trump can tout the policies that coincided with the lowest national unemployment rate on record before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Republicans think Trump can help make up ground in the polls, which show him lagging former Vice President Joe Biden, by highlighting their different visions on the economy and taxes.
Biden unveiled a tax plan in December that would raise taxes on wealthy individuals, families and corporations, bringing in $3.4 trillion over a decade. Republicans see that as a potential campaign issue.
But what’s frustrating to GOP senators is that those kinds of policy differences are being lost amid the daily controversies that surround Trump, such as his threat to veto the annual defense policy bill over a provision that would rename a handful of military bases named after Confederate generals.
“There’s a policy debate to be held there that I think the president can win with the American people. So he’s got to get on that message, and hopefully they will,” Thune said.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), one of Trump’s most loyal allies, said that “it’s always helpful” for a candidate to run on an agenda.
“From my standpoint, if I were him, I’d be pointing out what he did in the first term that was so successful about reviving a pretty slow-growth economy to attain record heights, record low levels of unemployment,” he said. “We’re going to need that exact same formulation to pull us out of COVID.”