Republicans have had six months of their unconventional and unpredictable president, six months of deepening investigation into possible connections to Russian intelligence, and six months of full control of the U.S. government in which they have struggled to achieve their most high-profile policy objective: repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a Republican alternative.
At the Western Conservative Summit this weekend in Denver, I heard a range of opinions about President Donald Trump and the job he’s been doing. The director of the institute that puts on the conference said conservatives are “restless,” and U.S. Rep. Ken Buck said the problem lies with Congress, not the president. An artist and farmer said she was buoyed by “new hope,” and a high school student worried about “sketchy” statements and actions related to the Russia investigation.
Here’s what attendees at the conference had to say:
“He could do a lot more”
Vanessa Rivera, a recent college graduate from Florida, was in town representing the Network of Enlightened Women to network and try to open chapters on Western college campuses. It’s challenging, she said, because young people don’t want to suffer academic or social consequences for being open about conservative beliefs on mostly liberal college campuses.
Dressed in pink pants and a pink-lettered “This is what a conservative looks like” T-shirt, Rivera said she wants people to know, “Not all conservatives are old men with monocles like the Monopoly guy. I’m a 22-year-old girl of Spanish descent, and I’m a conservative.”
She described the last six months as “rough” and followed that with a slow sigh when I asked in what way.
“He could do a lot more,” she said of the president. “He has a lot of power and a lot of pull, and he’s not using it.”
Health care is an important issue, but she’s more interested in changes to education and immigration policy. When I suggested those seem to be a ways down the road, Rivera said, “Or never.”
Elected officials need to follow through and stop making “empty promises,” she said.
“I don’t want to leave here with high hopes, and they go back to Washington and don’t do anything,” she said.
“He has exceeded my expectations”
Bill Eigles, a Denver activist who was the state director for the Ted Cruz campaign in Colorado, is a regular at the Western Conservative Summit with his political partner Regina Thomson, who lives in Aurora. The two of them make up the Colorado Issues Coalition, and they work “through the Republican party to advance constitutional governance.”
“He has exceeded my expectations in terms of what he’s done,” Eigles said of Trump. “He has governed more as a conservative than I anticipated he would prior to the election.”
Pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement and greenlighting the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines are examples that stand out to Eigles. And he’s very happy with the selection of Neil Gorsuch, “an extremely principled conservative constitutional jurist.”
The stakes involved in filling Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, held open when Republican senators refused to hold hearings on President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, motivated many conservatives to overlook misgivings about Trump. The choice of Gorsuch validates their support for Trump.
Trump is a “neophyte politician,” and he’s made mistakes, Eigles said, but all in all, things are moving in the right direction.
On health care, Republicans simply must do something, and the failure to pass something already speaks to some Republicans not being as conservative as they should be. Eigles said it “goes to essential principles” that the government has gotten so involved in the provision of a private good, and Thomson said it’s the “No. 1 issue that voters care about.”
“Immigration is a close second, but health care is the one issue that touches everyone,” she said.
“He goes against the status quo”
Roger Jones of Aurora started life as a Democrat in a Democratic city, Chicago, but 21 years in the Air Force and increasing disillusionment with his hometown’s dominant party moved him first to independent and then to conservative, starting with the presidency of Bill Clinton.
“They did not do anything for us,” he said of Democrats.
Jones said he wasn’t necessarily against Trump during the primary — he just didn’t think he stood much chance. Jones said he appreciates the president’s stance on border security and the ability to “talk about Christianity, whereas before you couldn’t.”
“He’s the guy who made it, and that’s who I support,” he said.
When Jones looks at the last few months, he sees a president who has had a bumpy transition from the world of business to the world of government, but who is holding his own.
“Knowing how many people are working against him, I think he’s doing okay,” Jones said. “He goes against the status quo.”
Jones is sanguine about the difficulties passing a health care bill and sees it as just part of a political process in which the Republican Party includes a range of views along the conservative spectrum. If they can’t pass something now, they may end up passing something in a crisis later.
“I hate the way government just sets things aside,” he said. “If you do set it aside, it’s going to explode. And maybe that’s what has to happen. Maybe you just have to crack those eggs and make something, whether that’s scrambled or over easy.”
“The president is leading”
Jeff Hunt, director of the Centennial Institute, which produces on the conference, described grassroots conservatives as “restless.”
“They want to see action and activity,” Hunt said in a panel discussion with Freedom Caucus members. “We have more control in Washington, D.C., than we’ve had in a generation. … Where is the breakdown?”
U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Weld County Republican, cited Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court and the cabinet Trump has assembled as evidence of his conservative accomplishments — to big applause.
“Congress is letting this president down, not the other way around,” Buck said. “The president is leading, and Congress needs to figure out how to get things onto his desk.”
“He doesn’t apologize for being American”
Mary Catherine Unrein beams when she talks about Trump.
“I am just so glad he’s president,” she said. “I just think there is a new hope coming on.”
Unrein, 71, and her husband, a retired sheriff’s deputy, left California 10 years ago for a farm in Fleming in northeast Colorado. She was at the summit to sell her rosaries, crosses and patriotic art.
Unrein trained in traditional methods of making Catholic art, but in the last year, she’s been called more and more to “Americana.” Trump inspires her.
“He’s not a politician,” she said. “He’s a businessman. He is for America. He wants the people to be prosperous. He doesn’t apologize for being American.”
Whereas America was once seen as “stooges” on the international stage, now we command respect, Unrein said. Trump was able to get China to accept U.S. beef exports, “by just calling up the president. Nobody did that before.”
“To have a nice market for beef, that’s a big deal for us,” she said.
I asked Unrein how she maintains such a positive impression of the president when the picture emerging from Washington on a near daily basis is one of chaos and confusion. She looked at me like she felt a little sorry for me.
“I don’t listen to national media,” she said.
“There have been some sketchy moments”
Jonathan Couch is feeling a little uneasy about Trump these days.
“I think he’s shown promise by keeping his word, but there have been some sketchy moments,” said Couch, 17, of Dallas. He was at the summit as part of Colorado Christian University’s Young Christian Conservative Leadership Conference. “It would do a lot for me if he came out clean from this Russia thing.”
Couch was at the Western Conservative Summit in 2016, when then-candidate Trump addressed participants, and he came away finding him to be “more genuine in real life” than he had come off in the media, even in conservative media. He tried to make his peace with the unusual candidate.
“I thought he was a joke, and then he was our only option,” he said.
Couch sees the president working hard to repeal Obamacare and tighten the border in a difficult political environment, but he’s cringed as Trump fired FBI director James Comey and issued what many interpreted as a veiled threat to independent counsel Robert Mueller.
“I don’t think that’s okay,” Couch said.
Why are Russian connections be such a big deal for Couch? He points to the recent decision to end a covert training program for anti-Assad fighters in Syria, a step Russia has sought for years.
“It raises a question: Is he catering to Russia?” Couch said. “That would be a big deal.”
“He puts it out there”
Steve Barlock was co-chair of Trump’s Denver campaign, and he remains a staunch supporter.
“I’ve talked to a lot of voters who are ecstatic with what he’s done,” Barlock said. “They are so happy to be wrong.”
The seeming chaos in Washington is the necessary destruction that’s part of creation.
“He’s a builder,” Barlock said. “He’s got to scrape the site and get rid of all the junk before he can build.”
Barlock is running for governor as the candidate who supported Trump early and often and openly. In fairness to the other candidates, who also say they support Trump, I’m going to try to avoid giving him too much personal platform here. But I’m including him because I thought what he had to say about the president’s tweets was interesting, in part because it’s so different from what you normally hear from Republicans — that they wish he would tweet less.
“Conservatives like everyone else are somewhat mystified and astonished by the, how do I put it, the ‘shoot from the hip’ and the inconsistency, presenting one side of the case one day and another side the next,” said Bob Loevy, professor emeritus of political science at Colorado College and himself a Republican. “I think conservatives will want someone who will be much more consistently conservative and more than that, buckle down and really work on one issue.”
Barlock, though, said Trump’s constant tweeting is his way of forcing political dialogue that wouldn’t otherwise happen. This isn’t quite how I’ve thought of it, but as a journalist who gets a lot of canned answers from politicians, I have thought, “Hey, at least we know what he’s really thinking.”
“The greatest thing about his tweeting is getting the conversation going,” Barlock said. “He puts it out there, and they have to comment on it.”