POLITICO Playbook: The one Republican message that keeps failing

With help from Eli Okun and Garrett Ross

DEBT CEILING LATEST — Speaker KEVIN McCARTHY told CBS’ Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation” this morning that he is hopeful for negotiating the debt limit with President JOE BIDEN when the two meet on Wednesday. “His staff tries to say something different, but I think the president will be willing to make an agreement together,” McCarthy said.

More from Olivia Olander: “Asked about White House concerns that some Republicans are seeking cuts to Social Security and Medicare, McCarthy said, ‘Let’s take those off the table.’ Cuts to defense spending, however, are still in play, McCarthy suggested.”

WHAT TRUMP CAN LEARN FROM McCONNELL, McCARTHY AND McDANIEL — Republicans have performed poorly in three elections in a row and yet they’ve maintained all of their key leaders: MITCH McCONNELL in the Senate, KEVIN McCARTHY in the House, and RONNA McDANIEL at the RNC. McConnell is now the longest-serving Senate leader in American history. McCarthy has had a top leadership position in the House GOP since 2010. McDaniel, by winning a fourth term, will be the RNC’s longest-serving chair since the Civil War.

The three races had unique dynamics, but they had one big thing in common: Republicans making the case for “fresh leadership” all failed.

That losing message is worth keeping in mind as the GOP turns its attention to the 2024 presidential primaries, which will feature frontrunner DONALD TRUMP against a large field of candidates arguing that it’s time for someone new to be in charge.

There was little new about Trump’s initial forays into New Hampshire and South Carolina on Saturday. There were the usual provocations (Mexico is “sending people that are killers, murderers; they’re sending rapists,” he said); the familiar taunts about potential rivals (“When I hear that [Florida Gov. RON DeSANTIS] might [run] I think it’s very disloyal,” he told reporters); and the same head-scratching absurdities laced throughout his remarks (“The hour-long diatribe suggested Joe Biden would have been shrewd to throw his son, HUNTER, under the bus, that the Taliban were incapable of fighting at night because they lacked ‘binoculars,’ and that wind turbines routinely knock planes out of the sky,” Time noted).

Much of this morning’s coverage of the events is mocking in tone. But two years after the attack on the Capitol, a few months after Trump helped lead Republicans to an historically disappointing midterm election, and amid several investigations at the state and federal level that could lead to criminal charges against him — and the rise of at least a dozen potential serious challengers — Trump remains the most likely 2024 Republican presidential nominee.

This WaPo piece by Dan Balz captures what we mean: “Trump’s path to GOP nomination is strewn with obstacles,” says the headline. “Still, a wide field could so divide the race that Trump could take the nomination, as he did in 2016, by winning a plurality of primary voters.”

There is a very déjà vu quality to the reporting. There are a million reasons that Trump shouldn’t still be standing and that his party should reject him and move on and find a new nominee for 2024. But he has a good chance of winning anyway if he can just clear a few hurdles in the primaries.

AP: “Trump’s team has struggled to line up support from South Carolina lawmakers, even some who eagerly backed him before. … South Carolina House Speaker MURRELL SMITH was among the legislative leaders awaiting Trump’s arrival, although he said he was there not to make a formal endorsement but to welcome the former president to the state in his role as speaker. …

“DAVE WILSON, president of conservative Christian nonprofit Palmetto Family, said some conservative voters may have concerns about Trump’s recent comments that Republicans who opposed abortion without exceptions had cost the party in the November elections. …

“But GERRI McDANIEL, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, rejected the idea that voters were ready to move on from the former president. ‘Some of the media keep saying he’s losing his support. No, he’s not,’ she said. ‘It’s only going to be greater than it was before because there are so many people who are angry about what’s happening in Washington.’”

WaPo: “Trump has done little in the way of traditional campaigning since announcing, and has struggled to reignite the energy of his previous runs, leading some Republicans to question his commitment to the 2024 race. …The campaign stops — featuring Trump speaking in smaller settings than the large rallies he hosted in past campaigns — underscored the challenges facing Trump, the sole entrant in the Republican race so far. Some in the party have been openly critical and many longtime allies are holding off on endorsements. …

“His speeches zigged and zagged through old talking points — ‘the fake news,’ his hatred of windmills, his favorable polling. But he and his allies also sought to focus on the policies he enacted as president and vowed to pursue in the future. He leaned into culture war issues on which rivals such as DeSantis have focused heavily, getting some of his biggest cheers with proposals to fight “indoctrination” in schools and appoint principals by election.”

NYT: “Mr. Trump’s attempt to drape himself with the trappings of a traditional campaign is an unspoken acknowledgment that he begins the race in one of the most politically vulnerable positions of his public life. He remains the clear front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, yet the solidity of his support seems increasingly in doubt.

“Longtime donors have been reluctant to recommit. Leaders in the Republican National Committee are openly encouraging other candidates to run. Voters rejected the handpicked candidates he vowed would win Republicans control of the Senate, but whose losses instead left the chamber in Democratic hands.”

WSJ: “Many Republican leaders across the country continue to urge Mr. Trump to step aside, citing the controversies and legal problems he has faced and disappointing results in recent elections — including losses in November by Trump-endorsed candidates in some key Senate and governor races. That sentiment was felt at a Republican National Committee meeting in California this week, where Ronna McDaniel was re-elected as party chair after a race that featured a heated debate over the party’s direction. …

“In South Carolina, he could bump up against home state candidates. Republican Sen. TIM SCOTT, has been mulling a possible presidential bid. So, too, has former Gov. NIKKI HALEY, who has said she is close to making a decision. Neither attended the Trump event, held at the State House with about 500 people invited. Mr. Trump said he recently spoke with Ms. Haley, who in April 2021 said she wouldn’t challenge him if he ran again.

“Sen. LINDSEY GRAHAM, who appeared with Mr. Trump at the State House, addressed the party unrest over its future. ‘How many times have you heard, “We like Trump policies but we want somebody new?”’ he said. ‘There are no Trump policies without Donald Trump.’”

Related read: “Trump hits DeSantis: He’s a Covid skeptic phony,” by Meridith McGraw in Columbia, S.C.

Good Sunday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. Drop us a line with your 2024 primary predictions: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.

SPOTTED at the notoriously off-the-record Alfalfa Club dinner on Saturday night at the Capitol Hilton, which featured speeches by outgoing president David Rubenstein, incoming president Jim Mattis, “crop reporter” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) (who introduced the new “sprouts”) and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who introduced Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), whom the Alfalfa Club jokingly selected as its nominee to run for U.S. president, in line with its annual tradition: Tim Cook, Doug McMillon, David Solomon, John F.W. Rogers, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Elaine Chao, Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and Annie Lamont,Rob Portman, Dina Powell McCormick and David McCormick, Andy Card, UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore

… Mike Bloomberg, Norah O’Donnell, David Petraeus, Fred Ryan, Brenden Bechtel, Marillyn Hewson, Bob Steel, Ron Klain, Bryan Lourd, Ron Howard, Jamie Dimon, Bret Baier, Jean and Steve Case, Jon Karl, Caryn Zucker, Michael Paese, Josh Bolten, Geoff Morrell, Paul and Janna Ryan, Chris Nassetta, Paul Pelosi, John Waldron, Peggy Noonan, Ken Mehlman, John Tyson, Michael Milken, Jeb Bush, George P. Bush, Jeb Bush Jr., Lisa Jackson, Pierre-Yves Roussel, Cesar Conde and William Webster. New sprouts included Satya Nadella, Tory Burch, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Tom Baltimore,Jim Farley andCommerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who read a letter from the president.

MEGATREND — “U.S. population center trending toward South this decade,” by AP’s Mike Schneider


— Sen. MARK WARNER (D-Va.) on the mishandling of classified documents by Biden, Trump and Pence, on “Face the Nation”: “We’ve got a problem in terms of both classification levels and how senior elected officials, when they leave government, how they handle documents. We’ve had too many examples of this.”

— Sen. MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.) on his threat to withhold funding if the Senate Intelligence Committee can’t review the classified documents, on “Face the Nation”: “I’d prefer not to go down that road. But it’s one of the pieces of leverage we have as Congress. I’m not, we’re not going to sit here and just issue press releases all day.”

— New Hampshire Gov. CHRIS SUNUNU on Trump’s campaign rollout, on CNN’s “State of the Union”: “He’s not really bringing that fire, that energy I think that a lot of folks saw in ’16. I think in many ways, it was a little disappointing to some folks.” Sununu also told CNN that he’s considering a 2024 run of his own.

— Rep. ERIC SWALWELL (D-Calif.) on McCarthy’s statements against him and Reps. ILHAN OMAR (D-Minn.) and ADAM SCHIFF (D-Calif.), on “State of the Union”: “These smears inspire violence. And the three of us have said over and over to Speaker McCarthy, when you say this, we hear it on voicemails, we see it in emails, or shouted at airports or public spaces parroting what you say. You have to condemn the violence and stop spreading smears. Otherwise, you have put a target on all of our backs, the backs of our families.”

— Rep. JIM JORDAN (R-Ohio) on McCarthy and the House GOP, on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “I think you’re going to see our team come together. And Kevin has kept our team together better than any leader we’ve had.”

— Rep. ADAM SMITH (D-Wash.) on debt ceiling negotiations, on “Fox News Sunday”: “Our position is: raise the debt ceiling, pay the bills. That’s our position. We are not going to negotiate with ourselves. That’s our position. If the Republicans want to put something on the table and say, ‘This is what we want to cut,’ well, then we can have a conversation, but that’s where we’re at in the negotiation.”

— Rep. BARBARA LEE (D-Calif.) on a potential 2024 Senate run, on MSNBC’s “The Sunday Show”: “I’ve been encouraged by all of the support I’ve received to run, and so I will give an announcement as it relates to a formal date when I will launch my campaign.”

TOP-EDS: A roundup of the week’s must-read opinion pieces.



1. DEMS’ NEW LINE OF ATTACK: “GOP national sales tax talk backfires, as Dems see political gold,” by Benjamin Guggenheim: “House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has backed his fellow Republicans into a corner with one of the promises he made to his far-right flank to land his job: opening the door to considering fringe legislation that would replace the income tax with a federal sales tax and abolish the IRS.

“Most GOP members appear determined to distance themselves as much as possible from the idea and McCarthy himself said this week he doesn’t support the legislation. But Democrats aren’t going to let the issue die quietly. They’ve been more than happy to use it as a cudgel to portray Republicans as dangerous radicals.”

Related read: “Inside McCarthy’s House: Famous friends and hard realities,” by AP’s Lisa Mascaro

2. THE NEW GOP: “RNC promises to be independent from Trump in 2024. Can it succeed?” by NBC’s Allan Smith: “For years, the Republican National Committee has been closely tied to Donald Trump. But with other candidates likely to run against him in 2024, RNC members want neutrality.”

3. DOCU-DRAMA: “Classified docs probe pushes Biden think tank into spotlight,” by AP’s Colleen Long: “The existence of the documents at the Penn Biden Center has trained unwanted criticism on the think tank, particularly by House Republicans investigating the mishandling of classified materials. They have requested a list of all center employees, including dates of employment and salaries, visitor logs and documents and communications related to security.”

Related read: “Public sees Biden cooperating with documents investigation; job approval remains unchanged,” by CBS’ Anthony Salvanto, Jennifer De Pinto, Fred Backus and Kabir Khanna

4. NEVER AGAIN: “Emhoff Calls for Fighting Anti-Jewish Tropes on Auschwitz Visit,” by Bloomberg’s Jordan Fabian: Second gentleman DOUG EMHOFF “said he was deeply moved by his Friday visit to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp, where roughly 1.1 million people were killed during the Holocaust, more than 90% of them Jews. … Friday was the 78th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, and Emhoff was the top-ranking US official to attend this year’s observance ceremony. He held other events to learn more about the persecution of Jews in Europe and collect information to aid the US government’s still-developing strategy on antisemitism.”

5. THE NEW BATTLEFIELD: “Do Abortion Rights Hang On State Constitutions?” by NYT’s Kate Zernike: “For abortion rights groups, state constitutions are a critical part of a strategy to overturn bans that have cut off access to abortion in a wide swath of the country. Those documents provide much longer and more generous enumerations of rights than the United States Constitution, and history is full of examples of state courts using them to lead the way to establish broad rights — as well as to strike down restrictions on abortion. They offer a way around gerrymandered state legislatures that are pushing stricter laws.”

6. IMMIGRATION FILES: “Online system to seek asylum in U.S. is quickly overwhelmed,” by AP’s Elliot Spagat in Tijuana, Mexico: “If it succeeds, CBPOne could be used by asylum-seekers even if Title 42 is lifted as a safe, orderly alternative to illegal entry, which reached the highest level ever recorded in the U.S. in December. It could also discourage large camps on Mexico’s side of the border, where migrants cling to unrealistic hopes. But a range of complaints have surfaced.”

7. ONE TO WATCH: “TikTok Ban Faces Obscure Hurdle: The Berman Amendments,” by WSJ’s John McKinnon: “The measures, known as the Berman amendments, date to the last years of the Cold War. They took away the president’s authority to regulate or ban imports of ‘informational materials’ from adversarial nations such as Cuba, and shielded those who produced such works — and their U.S. distributors — from penalties for violating economic sanctions. …

“The dilemma for lawmakers now: how to write legislation to prevent China’s government from influencing content on TikTok or other Chinese social-media apps, and gathering data on users, without shutting down global exchanges of content — or inviting retaliation against U.S. platforms and media.”

8. NAME TO KNOW: “Ramping up for possible gubernatorial bid, Gottheimer picks national political operative as new chief of staff,” by the New Jersey Globe’s David Wildstein: “A former regional political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, [CHELSEA] BROSSARD led the efforts to elect Democratic House members in six western states. She managed digital persuasion campaigns for dozens of high-profile gubernatorial and congressional races across the U.S. during the 2020 midterms. She was a senior director at Wavelength Strategy, a Washington political consulting firm.”

9. WAR IN UKRAINE: “​​Some Western Backers of Ukraine Worry That Time Might Be on Russia’s Side,” by WSJ’s Laurence Norman in Berlin and Stephen Fidler in London: “That concern suggests the window for Ukraine isn’t indefinite and it needs powerful Western weapons — main battle tanks, other armored vehicles and more air-defense systems — soon to reinforce the momentum it achieved in offensive successes around Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson last year.”

“At the Pentagon, push to send F-16s to Ukraine picks up steam,” by Lara Seligman, Erin Banco, Connor O’Brien, Paul McLeary and Lee Hudson

OUT AND ABOUT — SPOTTED at a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday for Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen at the Wharf: Gordon Ramsay, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, British ambassador to the U.S. Karen Pierce,Shawn Townsend, Robin McGahey, Patrick Kane, Grace Cutts and Montanna Mellion. PicAnother pic

TRANSITIONS — Alex Rosenberg is now scheduler for HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. He previously was chief of staff for former Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.). … Sarah Henderson is now comms director for Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.). She most recently was press assistant for the GOP side of the House Science Committee. … Sam Mulopulos is now an Ian Axford Fellow researching Indo-Pacific trade and supply chains policy in the New Zealand Treasury and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He previously was deputy staff director for the Senate Homeland Security Committee and a trade policy adviser for former Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) … former Speaker Paul RyanRobyn Bash … Bloomberg’s Lauren Dezenski and Eric Roston Jocelyn FryeKristy SchantzSteve Hagenbuch … CMS’ Gavin ProffittSeth Appleton … Amazon’s Mary Kate McCarthyKristine Grow of America’s Health Insurance Plans … POLITICO’s Jesús Rodríguez, Annie Connell-Bryan and Michelle BastianLaura Rosenberger … former Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) … Gaby Hurt of Sen. John Barrasso’s (R-Wyo.) office … Maureen “Mo” Elinzano of Rep. Doris Matsui’s (D-Calif.) office … John Newton of theSenate Agriculture GOP … Tom CollamoreBrian Donahue of CRAFT | Media/Digital … Geoff Smith of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s D.C. office … former Holyoke, Mass., Mayor Alex MorseEmily Tara WebermanSam Conchuratt Kim Ghattas … Slate’s Jonathan Fischer … Edelman’s Aaron Guiterman Michael Duga Denielle Sachs … International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi … American Conservation Coalition’s Sariyah Khaldi Alexis Torres of Rep. Joaquin Castro’s (D-Texas) office

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