Striking out at the “adult day care center” in the White House and warning of the president’s unfitness one day, but on the next day empathizing with the president over unfair media coverage, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has left even admirers scratching their heads. Does he want to make President Trump more presentable, or to help the party survive his presidency? Does he want to yank the party back from the ideological extreme, or to simply moderate Trump’s rhetoric? Corker has not used the time since he announced his retirement to set the party back on a more fiscally sound path (he voted for the tax bill but against the budget bill suddenly feeling a bang of fiscal sobriety) or to rebuke the president on his attacks on the FBI. Now comes a report suggesting that he might have reason to make peace with the president and the Trumpized GOP.
Retiring Sen. Bob Corker is “listening” to Republicans urging him to run for reelection, according to a person close to him, a development that would quell anxiety among Republicans over losing a must-win seat to Democrats this fall.
The two-term Tennessee GOP senator decided to call it quits in September amid an on-again, off-again dispute with President Donald Trump that has eroded his standing with the party’s base. But now a faction of Republicans in Tennessee and Washington are worried that the favorite for the Republican Senate nomination, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), could lose the general election — and with it the Senate majority.
On one level, we can understand why Corker would reconsider. A GOP-led Senate caucus without him and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) will descend further into right-wing populism. The antagonism toward compromise and yen for protectionism and immigration extremism will intensify, whether the GOP hangs on to the majority or not. Like Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Corker may be motivated by the sincere desire to stay and provide the party and the Senate with ballast. Certainly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would prefer not to lose a voice of moderation. (That said, Corker’s votes on the tax plan, on health care and on the most recent budget don’t mark him as ideologically distinct from his GOP colleagues.)
On foreign policy, if Corker retires, his Foreign Relations Committee chairmanship (provided that the GOP holds the Senate majority) falls by seniority to Trump apologist Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), who is not known for his strong interest or expertise in foreign policy. Corker would be sorely missed. Corker has established a good working relationship with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who has been cajoled into backing off of his grand reorganization plan) and has tried to counter Trump’s erratic, irrational aggressiveness. He may, for all the right reasons, feel obligated to stay and help prevent foreign policy disasters from unfolding.
However, there are several reasons Corker might want to stick to his decision and go.
Most important, given where the GOP is these days, he could well lose to Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a right-wing firebrand whom pro-Trump Republicans would embrace. His own on-again-off-again positioning may convince GOP loyalists that his heart really is not in this. Late last year, a state poll showed “Corker’s approval rating dropped from 60 percent in November 2016 to 47 percent.” Ending his Senate career in defeat would deprive him of influence going forward and dash any thoughts of a future presidential run.
Second, Corker may be more valuable as a candid antagonist for the balance of the year. Agreeing to run will no doubt prompt him to bite his tongue and avoid raising the president’s ire for the remainder of the year. If he’s running in a GOP primary, his warnings to the party and outspokenness about the president’s misconduct will inevitably be toned down. At a time when the party needs some tough love, Corker will need to assure the base that he’s not going to butt heads with Trump.
Third, even if Corker wins, the GOP may not retain its majority, thereby depriving Corker of his chairmanship. Being in the minority with an increasingly rancorous Congress, he will have diminished influence and be forced to contend with calls for impeachment or, at the least, with nonstop investigations of the president.
Fourth, unless Corker is resigned to Trump as the party’s nominee in 2020, he would do better to maintain his distance from Trump. It will be hard to run for reelection this year as a Trump ally but keep options open either for his own run or to support a challenger in 2020. If Corker wants to be a counterweight to Trump either within the party or assist in a conservative independent run, it would be desirable for him to get out of Congress, travel the country and free himself from the obligation to toe the partisan line.
In short, Corker may be sorely tempted to stay and continue damage control in the last two years of Trump’s term. However, he will have to decide whether it is actually better for him, the future of the center-right and the cause of eliminating the scourge of Trumpism if he puts reelection concerns away, continues to sound the alarm when needed and rebuke at critical times a White House that once again is mired in crises of its own making.
UPDATE: I previously indicated Corker voted for the budget; he did not. That has been corrected above.