For decades, the Republican Party lived by a creed, a model of decorum espoused by Ronald Reagan’s so-called eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”
But that was before Donald Trump became president.
Now, a band of lifelong Republicans is using the lessons they learned over 30 years as political strategists for the GOP to do more than criticize their party. Rather, they are actively working to defeat its incumbent president and Republican senators who support him.
Called the Lincoln Project, the group was founded by eight men and women who had previously worked with Republicans such as Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and President George W. Bush. Although it has endorsed the Democratic presidential hopeful, former Vice President Joe Biden, the group has said they do not represent any particular candidate, campaign, or party.
What the Lincoln Project does speak for is a feeling for some that the Republican Party has betrayed its longtime members.
“We’ve gone from caring about character, rule of law, defending the constitution, a cogent national security policy, free trade. Where are all those issues?” said co-founder John Weaver, a strategist who previously worked with McCain and John Kasich. “Imagine if you had traveled the country for 30 years, fighting for Republican principles, and you learn it was all a lie. No one cares about all the issues that we fought for.”
members of the Lincoln Project explained what they see as the roots of the Republican Party’s shift.
THE ROLE SARAH PALIN PLAYED
For strategist John Weaver, the Freedom Caucus helped catalyze the Republican Party’s transformation. Formed in 2015, the congressional caucus is made up of conservative Republican members of Congress who are often at odds with members of their own party. Among its founders are Rep. Jim Jordan, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, and former Director of the Office of Management and Budget and Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
Weaver pointed to the group’s opposition to a compromise immigration reform bill as what he said is a particular mistake.
“The party constantly lied about Obamacare, they constantly claimed they cared about the national debt, and meanwhile the national debt continued to go up while Republicans were in power,” he said. “And it made Republicans even more cynical, the Republican voters more cynical so that when Trump arrived, they were desperate for someone to wreck the system.”
But before the Freedom Caucus, Weaver told Stahl, another presidential contest marked a shift in the party — the 2008 campaign. The party had begun to change before that election, Weaver said, but McCain expedited the transformation when he selected former Alaska Gov. Sara Palin as his vice presidential running mate.
“It was a reality TV show choice,” he said. “It was a mistake.”
Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt was a senior campaign strategist and top adviser to McCain during his 2008 campaign. He told Stahl he, too, regrets that Palin was put on the ticket, even though he had originally encouraged McCain to select her.
“What you saw for the first time with Palin was someone who was breathtakingly dishonest not being held to account for her breathtaking dishonesty by a lot of news organizations, particularly those with a partisan agenda,” he said. “She was unfit in a profound level.”
Schmidt claims that, for years, Fox News and right-wing conservatives continued to use Palin to push the idea that science was irrelevant and credible news was “fake.” The effect, he said, was to energize other politicians like her.
“The category of people that we have seen in our politics over the last decade or so, from Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz, to Sarah Palin is part of the reason the country’s politics are such a disaster,” Schmidt said. “And part of the reason the country’s in such a mess.”
RACISM IN THE PARTY
Rick Wilson, a media consultant and ad maker who worked for Republicans including Rudy Guiliani and President George H.W. Bush, feels Trump has set in motion a dark aspect of the Republican Party that had been lurking for years.
“There were parts of the GOP that we have to look at and be honest about what it was,” Wilson told Stahl. “We didn’t, as a broad party, look at the people in parts of the base in the South and parts of the Midwest who were not motivated by free markets or limited government or individual liberty. They were motivated by racial animus. There is a part of it’s out there. And we have to look at it honestly.”
Wilson pointed to President Ronald Reagan’s unambiguous repudiation of the Ku Klux Klan. In a 1984 letter to Morris Abram, then-vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Reagan disassociated himself with the Klan and other hate groups, writing:
The politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country, and are destructive of the values for which America has always stood… I firmly believe there is no room for partisanship on this question. Democrats and Republicans alike must be resolute in disassociating ourselves from any group or individual whose political philosophy consists only of racial or religious intolerance, whose arguments are supported only by intimidation or threats of violence.
But, Wilson said, the Republican Party continued to tolerate members who subscribed to racist beliefs, leading Trump to, in Wilson’s words, “play footsie” with them by not immediately denouncing former Klan leader David Duke in 2016.
“We should have purged them,” Wilson said of the underbelly of racism among Republicans. “We never did.”
60 Minutes’ Stahl pushed back, asking whether Wilson feels responsibility for previously promoting a party that had never fully eradicated racist elements.
Wilson responded that, while he had never represented politicians with racist beliefs, he did work for candidates he feels “ashamed” of today.
“I helped elect Rudy Giuliani,” he said. “And he’s gone off the rails, and not in a racial sense, but he’s gone off the rails completely as this, you know, sort of conspirator in chief with Trump. It’s sad.”
WOULD THEY HAVE SUPPORTED BERNIE?
If Bernie Sanders had become the Democratic presidential nominee, would the Lincoln Project be doing what it is today?
Former McCain advisor Steve Schmidt says yes.
“Because Bernie Sanders believes in American democracy,” he said. “He believes in American elections. He believes in the fairness of the election process. And that’s what this is all about.”
While the members of the Lincoln Project say they disagree with Sanders on a host of issues, particularly his economic agenda, they all agreed that they would have supported him should he have been the candidate opposite Trump.
“He’s not un-American. Donald Trump is fundamentally un-American…” Rick Wilson said. “He doesn’t believe in the role of a president as a leader of a nation. Instead, Donald Trump looks at the presidency as a way to enrich himself and aggrandize himself. And these are just fundamentally different categories.”
The videos above were edited by Will Croxton.