Over lunch a few blocks from the White House on a bright, sunny day in the summer of 2019, one of the architects of the modern Republican Party admitted he was thinking the unthinkable. If Joseph R. Biden, Jr., won the his party’s nomination, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III confided that he might vote for the Democrat over President Trump. For Baker, that would be a profound break with the Party he spent decades building. Until Trump came along, every Republican President for four decades had relied on Baker. Baker ran their campaigns or their White Houses, brought them to power or helped them stay there.
Not Trump, the antithesis of everything Baker stood for during his storied career as Washington’s indispensable man: the sitting President was a boorish, dishonest carnival barker who was tearing down everything Baker’s party and generation had accomplished—free-trade pacts, international alliances, American leadership in the world, nuclear-arms treaties. The words Baker kept coming up with to describe Trump to us were “crazy” and “nuts.”
But when we sat down in the fall of 2019 to talk it over again, at his office in Houston, he had changed his mind. “Don’t say that I will vote for Biden,” Baker cautioned. “I will vote for the Republican—I really will. I won’t leave my party. You can say my party has left me, because the head of it has. But I think it’s important, the big picture.” What was the big picture? Republican control of the levers of power. Even if it means another four years of Trump in the White House.
For five years, ever since Trump first announced his Presidential candidacy, we’ve had a running conversation with Baker as he wrestled with conflicted feelings about the President, appalled by his erratic leadership yet unwilling to publicly break with him. We watched as Baker initially dismissed the reality-show veteran as a joke who would never win, then searched for reasons to embrace his party’s choice and ignore his own personal misgivings. We saw him try to help Trump with advice and personnel recommendations only to find a President impervious to counsel. Eventually, Baker started rationalizing the outrages and forgiving the mistakes, focussing instead on those Trump Administration policies he supported. [Continue reading…]