STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It is normal in any election year for some incumbents to retire. Lawmakers look around, ask if they can win another term, and if they doubt it - they're the pros - they may step aside. Now that California Congressman Darrell Issa has decided to step down, though, a total of 31 Republicans in Congress have said they will not run. That's a record in modern times. Some Republicans are seeking other offices. Others are simply quitting.
Matt Schlapp is watching all of this. He's chair of the American Conservative Union. Thanks for coming by our studios once again.
MATT SCHLAPP: Great to be here, Steve.
INSKEEP: How worried are conservatives approaching this midterm election?
SCHLAPP: Conservatives and Republicans, generally, are concerned. It's a lot of retirements. And there's been more political change in the last two years - I really would argue on both sides - than we've seen probably in my lifetime. And for some incumbents, it rattles them.
You'll look at most of these Republicans who aren't running again - it's a couple of factors. Number one, they're in very tough districts. Darrell Issa barely won last time despite the fact that he spends a lot of his own resources because he's a very wealthy guy.
INSKEEP: He's in a district that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.
SCHLAPP: Right. So you see, that's one dynamic. And in an increasingly polarized America, it's that much harder to win in districts controlled by the other party. The other issue is a lot of these Republicans were chairmen, and they're term limited from keeping their chairmanship. So like Bob Goodlatte and these folks - once you've had that gavel in your hands, Steve, it's hard to just see yourself as a mere mortal, regular member.
INSKEEP: Yeah. There must be lawmakers - you talked about political change on both sides in the last couple of years that parties have been resorting and shifting particularly because of President Trump and some of his positions. Do you think there are a lot of Republicans who do not feel comfortable in their party anymore?
SCHLAPP: I think that - remember, Donald Trump didn't change the dynamics, although he's changed a lot of things. There were changing dynamics that gave Donald Trump a lane to get the nomination of the Republican Party. He beat, you know, 16 other candidates that most of us thought this was like, you know, this was the top of the class here. And he just worked through them. Won almost every primary.
And on the other side, Bernie Sanders, who's not even a Democrat - he's a socialist - really upset the order of things. And a lot of people believe that if it wasn't for Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the DNC, who was a close Hillary Clinton ally and such, he might - and superdelegates - he might have been the nominee. So you have a guy, Donald Trump, who wasn't really a lifelong Republican getting the Republican nomination. And Bernie Sanders, a socialist, almost getting the Democratic nomination.
INSKEEP: Has it been a mistake for Republicans to approach the president the way that they have? And I just want to summarize here. Republicans are appreciative of the fact that the president signs onto their agenda, and they go for that. And they just keep trying to look the other way when he says something embarrassing or tweet something embarrassing. Is that just not working for Republicans?
SCHLAPP: I think it's working great. I think that the president is a unique personality. He has not - as I said, he hasn't been a longtime Republican. He hasn't run for office as a Republican. He is an outsider president, which we probably haven't had since our founders. And I think my advice to Republicans all the time - I met with a bunch of House Republican conservatives the other day - is since the president is a unique individual, you don't have to agree with absolutely everything he does...
INSKEEP: Yeah, but wait a minute...
SCHLAPP: ...But if you have a shared agenda, you ought to work together.
INSKEEP: So there's a shared agenda. I'll grant that.
SCHLAPP: There definitely is.
INSKEEP: But I get a sense, Matt, that there are a lot of Republicans who would like to just support the president on the issues, and he keeps making it so very hard. He talks about nuclear buttons. He raises the prospect of nuclear confrontation. He announces that he's a, quote, "very stable genius." I mean, do you think the president is a very stable genius?
SCHLAPP: I think he's very stable, and I think he's a political genius. How the heck would a guy who's never really been in politics in his very first run get the top job? I mean, you have to agree, Steve.
INSKEEP: You think he's very stable?
SCHLAPP: I know people...
INSKEEP: You don't think this guy is continuously angry and continuously on the verge of going after...
SCHLAPP: No. No. You know, I get a benefit a lot of people don't get. I knew him before he ran for president. I've talked with him and worked with him as he was running for president. And, obviously, you know, I'm going to be at the White House today on an initiative they're working on. So I deal with him and his people.
And I find him - yes, he's unique. He's a unique New Yorker. There's no question. He is a character. But he's also very bright. Unlike a lot of politicians when I talk to them, he engages me and asks me a bunch of questions. And he listens, which is a very rare commodity in politics.
INSKEEP: I've got to tell you. There are a lot of New Yorkers who are outspoken, but not very many call themselves a very stable genius. So I'll just mention - I'll just mention...
INSKEEP: I want to ask about one other thing very briefly. Steve Bannon, of course, has been more or less read out of the Republican Party, for the moment anyways. He's lost his perch at Breitbart. He's been denounced by the president.
SCHLAPP: He's had a rough week.
INSKEEP: But not long ago, this former presidential adviser spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and he was saying things like this. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
STEVE BANNON: I think if you look at the lines of work - I kind of break it out into three verticals or three buckets. The first is kind of national security and sovereignty. And that's your intelligence, the defense department, Homeland Security. The second line of work is what I refer to as economic nationalism - rethinking how we're going to reconstruct our trade arrangements around the world. The third, broadly, line of work is what is deconstruction of the administrative state.
INSKEEP: Here's my question - do those views persist even as Steve Bannon does not?
SCHLAPP: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. First of all, I was the person interviewing him in that...
INSKEEP: There we go, OK.
SCHLAPP: ...A year ago, and CPAC is coming up in February. So that was a year ago. It's amazing - short period of time. And as I said, he's had a rough go here. But yeah, I think he animated and explained very well where - it's not a Republican thing - where a lot of Americans felt we had missed the mark on trade agreements.
It's not about whether you're free trade or not. It's whether the trade agreements are really working and whether or not we have this extra constitutional government in these independent agencies and whether they're outside the bounds of the Constitution.
INSKEEP: Matt Schlapp, head of the American Conservative Union, thanks for coming by.
SCHLAPP: Thanks for having me here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.