Columnist Jay Bookman writes that Gov. Brian Kemp’s recent speech to GOP donors that it’s time to move on from his former political ally is a compelling message, but it is the governor, not Donald Trump, who is the candidate of the past. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder (File July 2020)
In a high-profile speech over the weekend in Nashville, Gov. Brian Kemp told national Republican donors that it’s time for the party to look forward, to the elections and issues of 2024, rather than backward to the debacle of 2020.
“Not a single swing voter in a single swing state will vote for our nominee if they choose to talk about the 2020 election being stolen,” Kemp told the audience, in a clear if not explicit warning about the dangers of renominating Donald Trump.
It’s a compelling message, but the truth is that it is Kemp, not Trump, who is the candidate of the past. Kemp is calling upon his party to return to its pre-Trump roots, but he is doing so at a time when its base shows no sign of having learned its lesson, no sign that it is willing to give up the emotional gratification of another Trump candidacy in return for a better if more boring chance at victory. They have no interest in incrementalism; what they want is an outlet for their fury, and Trump provides it.
Right here in Kemp’s home state, in a recent poll among Georgia Republican voters conducted by the University of Georgia, Trump outpaced Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his nearest rival for the 2024 nomination, by more than 20 percentage points. And DeSantis, as Kemp seems to recognize, is hardly the candidate of normality and sanity. All you need to know about the mood of the GOP electorate is that he and Trump are by far the most popular candidates.
It must be frustrating. Here in Georgia, by any definition a crucial swing state, Trump-backed candidates have lost three consecutive Senate races to the Democrats. In that same time frame, the more pragmatic Kemp has soundly defeated a Trump-backed challenger in the 2020 GOP primary and went on to thrash Stacey Abrams in November as well. In an earlier University of Georgia poll, this one taken in January, voters gave Kemp a 62% job approval rating.
Kemp also can boast of a significant conservative record. He signed a six-week abortion ban long before DeSantis did in Florida. He signed a bill allowing open, unpermitted carrying of firearms well before DeSantis followed suit. He gutted state campaign-finance safeguards with his creation of “leadership PACs” that can accept unlimited donations, and he has never let ethical niceties interfere with his pursuit of power, even if he is more subtle about it than the rampaging DeSantis and Trump.
He’s also been pretty sly. In the recently concluded legislative session, Kemp offered just enough late backing for a school-voucher bill to be able to portray himself as a supporter, but not enough to push it through to passage, which would have required him to sign the controversial legislation.
In essence, Kemp operates within the traditional boundaries of politics. He generally doesn’t stoop to being an Internet troll; “owning the libs” might be fun but hasn’t been a high priority. He doesn’t bash gay Americans for sport or call them groomers. He’s not trying to ban drag queens or books from school libraries. He doesn’t hint darkly at a second American civil war, or pay homage to Vladimir Putin. He doesn’t play on Twitter, and while he offers enough lip service to the Fox News hysteria of the day to maintain his conservative credibility, he doesn’t allow the conservative entertainment industry to set his agenda. He’s not interested in blowing everything up, he wants to make it work for the causes in which he believes.
Oh, and he knows better than to try to overturn lost elections through violence or through cockamamie schemes to trash the Constitution. That’s something.
All that said, though, Kemp has not been a good governor. It’s been lunacy to encourage people to carry guns, as he has done with multiple changes to weaken state gun laws. The more guns that are carried, the more people feel compelled to arm themselves, and the quicker they are to use those weapons. It’s wrong to let government dictate the most intimate, important decisions of a woman’s life, and the stubborn refusal of Kemp and his fellow Georgia Republicans to accept Medicaid expansion and the billions in federal aid that comes with it has forced hundreds of thousands of working Georgians to live without health insurance for no reason other than petty political spite.
But if Kemp hasn’t been a good governor, he has admittedly been an effective one. Once upon a time, Republicans and Democrats alike could build a career on that. Now, in a Republican Party more and more disinterested in governance, and less and less serious about the nation’s future, Kemp’s call is falling on deafened ears.
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