If you’re interested in how Republican politicians are talking about Donald Trump in the end phase of his first term and perhaps his Presidency, one good place to look is to the campaigns of the ten Republican senators who are least likely to be reëlected—most of whom represent states that the President won comfortably four years ago. Judging from current polling in those politicians’ races, the Democrats may well gain control of the Senate: they need to pick up only two or three of the vulnerable Republican seats, in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina, Iowa, Montana, Alaska, and Georgia (where two Republican seats are being tightly contested). In the past week, I watched eight of those senators’ debates, which had a throwback tinge to them: the television graphics were boxy and dated, the questions excellent, and the candidates nimbler than you might expect. Politicians are charming people who have been operating under a spell of charmlessness for a decade, roughly since Mitch McConnell made it obvious that he was on a mission to thwart the Obama Administration and a mood of wartime enmity suffused the capital. But the more consequential anachronism of those Senate debates came from the Republican senators themselves, who generally acted as if Donald Trump were not the President and his policies were not the bedrocks of their party—as if, once he leaves office, the dials could be turned back to their 2011 settings and the decade could begin again.
The 2020 drumbeat, for Republicans, has been to warn of an ascendent socialism. “You put Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Joe Biden in charge of Washington, you’ll see a federal takeover of the health-care system,” Steve Daines, of Montana, said, in a recent debate against his Democratic opponent, Governor Steve Bullock. But you don’t hear much about immigration, or trade, or any of the other issues that have defined Trump’s Presidency. The longer I watched the Senate debates, the more I found myself rewinding the footage to scan through the Republican candidates’ responses. Surely they’d mentioned the President, and somehow I’d missed it? But often they just hadn’t. In late September, Joni Ernst, the Republican senator from Iowa, made it through an hour-long debate with her Democratic challenger, a real-estate executive named Theresa Greenfield, without mentioning Trump by name. When asked directly about the Times revelations that the President, while living a billionaire’s life, had paid just seven hundred and fifty dollars to the federal government in annual income taxes, Ernst redirected. “Many years ago, I echoed the call for the President to release his tax returns,” she said. “But, bottom line, we would love to see lower taxes for everybody, including all of our hardworking Americans.”
I was watching on YouTube, and in the comments alongside the debate I could see the essentially erratic character of 2020 politics unfolding: viewers were talking about Hunter Biden or “Putin’s puppet” (Hillary Clinton’s most lasting epithet for the President), or exclaiming “TRUMP TRAIN!” On Twitter the Ernst-Greenfield debate didn’t register, which has fit the pattern; the Senate debates have been noticed only when someone declared them a rout. But what I saw in the sedate PBS studio where the Ernst-Greenfield debate was held, with Iowa’s veteran political columnist David Yepsen at the helm, was two capable candidates calmly advancing the basic positions of their parties: taxes should be higher, or lower; billionaires should get a smaller share of the spoils, or about the same amount; the Supreme Court was bound to dissolve Roe v. Wade, or it wasn’t. No one owned anyone. Beneath the madness of Presidential politics, the parties were moving at their usual rate, that of tectonic plates, and the only reasonable posture was to sit at your listening station like a geologist, headphones securely over your ears, waiting for the infinitesimal movement of a needle.
Now and then, there was some movement. I’d been particularly interested to watch John Cornyn, the three-term senator from Texas. A sixty-eight-year-old former judge with a long face and a formal manner, Cornyn is Mitch McConnell’s No. 2 and arguably the closest thing the Republican Party has to a tectonic plate. He had seemed to luck out when Beto O’Rourke declined to challenge him, leaving him with a little-known opponent, a former military-helicopter pilot named M. J. Hegar. But Hegar turned out to be effective. When, in an October 9th debate, Cornyn accused Hegar of “tacitly” endorsing police defunding, she spat out, “I never do anything tacitly—I’m not a tacit person,” and then kept muttering about it under her breath….