Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Republicans announced Thursday that Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will deliver the party’s response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address next week. Sanders, the former White House press secretary and daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, is part of a larger effort by Republicans to repackage Trumpism in a way that seems more palatable.
Sanders represents a new generation of Republicans eager to weaponize the same outrage machine with familiar talking points about the threats of immigration, the so-called radical left’s attacks on education and an economy in shambles under Biden – while showing that they can govern without the self-defeating chaos and tumult that rocked the nation from 2017 to 2021.
The 40-year-old certainly provides a contrast to the 76-year-old former President Donald Trump by virtue of her age and gender. It’s also worth noting her past experience working in the George W. Bush administration – an experience that ties her to the Republican establishment.
But Trump has remade the Republican Party in his image, and Sanders is falling back on the same culture war playbook he used and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis polished. Since she was sworn in as governor at the start of the year, she has taken aim at critical race theory in the classroom and the use of the phrase “Latinx” in state documents.
None of this should come as a surprise. Sanders stood by former President Donald Trump during the most controversial of controversial moments and defended his family separation policy at the border, insisting that it was the law and that the president was merely enforcing it. She also shares Trump’s resentments, with a view of a world where “everybody’s against us, everybody’s looking down on us,” as John Brummett, a political columnist in Arkansas, told the New Yorker in 2019.
Echoing the rhetoric of Trump and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — who pioneered the kind of smashmouth, no-guardrails partisanship that shapes the modern GOP — Sanders announced Thursday that she was a part of a new group of leaders in her party who were “ready to defend our freedom against the radical left…”
But Sanders also promised to present an “optimistic vision for the future” in her rebuttal. Given that Trump’s vision was rooted in fear, hate and grievances, her attempted rebranding might be the next stage in the evolution of the GOP.
Sanders’ star role should send something of a warning to Trump, who learned this week his former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is expected to announce her bid for president in 2024. Haley, who could pose a serious threat to Trump in the Republican primary, is in some ways the face of the modern GOP.
As a conservative woman born to immigrant parents, she has an extensive record as governor of South Carolina. Though she espouses many of the extreme views held by her former boss, backing his decision to withdraw the US from key international commitments including the Paris climate agreement, for example, Haley will likely sell her competence and ability to promote conservative goals through more traditional political processes.
But will any kind of Republican repackaging effort work? It remains to be seen what Sanders has in store when it comes to optimism – an outlook that seems at odds with conservativism. As for candidates like Haley, voters can likely discern the same old policies and ideas, even when they’re touted by different candidates.
The Republican Party has become increasingly extreme over the past few decades, not just because of the officials at the top of the party but because of the themes that they have chosen to focus on. And swing voters who might otherwise be attracted to new Republican faces and hardline positions on issues like crime could still be turned off by the radicalism of the basic Republican agenda, even if there is less toxic tweeting and unconventional political theatrics.
Moreover, Sanders is faced with a tall order next week, given that the list of those who respond to the State of the Union is haunted with once promising political stars. It’s a hard act to follow the commander in chief, and those chosen to represent the opposition party rarely pull it off.
Since 1966, when Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Rep. Gerald Ford of Michigan delivered a relatively successful joint response to President Lyndon Johnson, parties have tried to figure out a way to make these work. But they rarely do. Who can forget Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in 2013, who seemed to move his career 30 steps back when he reached over for a gulp of water right in the middle of speaking, or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose uninspired delivery in 2009 gave comedians fodder for months? Democrats have struggled too, with Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius giving a sleepy response after President George W. Bush in 2008.
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The jury’s still out on whether Republican voters really want a change from Trump. Despite all the conversations in the media about whether Trump will start a civil war within the party and force the GOP to undergo a transformation in order to broaden its reach, party support for him remained relatively strong after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. But there are signs that his hold on the party may be weakening, with a CNN/SSRS poll in December finding that 6 in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents wanted their party to nominate someone other than Trump in 2024.
Ultimately, Republicans are thirsty for power and eager to win back the White House in 2024. Many of them are still bitter about the outcome of the 2020 election and frustrated that Biden has enjoyed legislative success and an unexpectedly good midterm election result. If someone like Sanders can make the case that Trumpism needs a rebrand — and embraces many of the same core positions as the former president without the chaos and inefficiency, adds a dash of optimism and demonstrates the GOP is not just a party of angry White men — that might open a window for a new slate of candidates to jump into the contest for the 2024 nomination.