With presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump beginning outreach to the conservative Republicans who have balked at his candidacy, the conservative movement is wondering if it can make do with the bombastic billionaire.
“I think we need to watch and see what the candidates say and do,” Ted Cruz told Glenn Beck on Tuesday. Deputy Majority Whip Rep. Tom Cole said Thursday Trump is “very much a work in progress as a candidate,” amid meetings the presumptive nominee held with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other congressional leaders.
“Look, it’s no secret that Donald Trump and I have had our differences,” Ryan said after those meetings. “The question is: What is it that we need to do to unify the Republican Party and all strains of conservative wings in the party? We had a very good and encouraging, productive conversation on just how to do that.”
Former Sen. Jim DeMint told a radio station last week that the Heritage Foundation, which DeMint heads, is “hoping that we can push him to carry some conservative ideas into the election and win it… His campaign has shown an openness to work with us, and so hopefully we can fill his campaign with the right ideas.”
So what exactly do conservatives want?
“The biggest signal will be the sort of (Supreme Court) justice he picks,” said Ken Blackwell, Ohio’s former secretary of state who sits on the board of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth and is a fellow for the socially conservative Family Research Council.
His picks will signal his commitment on a whole slew of issues, conservatives say.
“If he is committed to religious liberty, it would be reflected in his nominees,” Blackwell said.
While Trump is generally in line with the party on social and religious issues like gay marriage, abortion and religious liberties, movement conservatives have concerns: Trump described himself as “very pro-choice” in the 1990s and said he thought his sister, a Bill Clinton appointed judge, would make a “phenomenal” Supreme Court justice. Trump has since said he was joking, but he broke party lines when he told NBC News that transgender people should be allowed to use the bathroom of their gender identity and said he felt women should be punished for having abortions, a position even the most far-right opponents of abortion oppose and he later walked back.
A metric for selecting Supreme Court nominees – or a slate of potential picks – would soothe anxieties, conservative leaders say.
“Supreme Court picks – I make that plural not singular – and judge picks are among the easiest, simplest areas to look to where we have high expectations and it’s very important,” former Virginia Attorney General and Cruz surrogate Ken Cuccinelli told MSNBC. “If he said I’m gonna name this person as my Supreme Court pick, and that was somebody social conservatives would be enthusiastic about, he’d give a lot of people a reason to go vote for him.”
Family Research Council head Tony Perkins said a socially conservative vice presidential candidate would help ease tensions among the base, too.
“That will give them the assurances that he is going to have somebody in his inner circle that will be representing their concerns and values,” Perkins told the Christian Post in an interview where he said he was “open” to Trump despite his past criticism of the candidate.
Evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, head of Iowa’s Family Leader and prominent Cruz supporter, agreed.
“We will be very interested where Mr. Trump who he selects as his vice presidential choice – because we do believe that who you surround yourself with tells us a lot about a person’s leadership and that’ll be the first indicator that,” he told MSNBC.
Another top issue? Entitlement reform.
“It’s my absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is,” Trump said in a March debate. “Not increase the age and to leave it as is.”
But conservatives say the movement wants their president to lead the way on convincing voters that entitlement reform is the right thing to do.
Cruz’s former communications director Rick Tyler argued that while Ryan has conceived of a plan to reform entitlements, it hasn’t passed because conservatives haven’t found a way to convince the nation it was the right decision.
“If we actually had a conservative president who could articulate a free market approach to entitlement reform, particularly on Social Security,” it would pave the way for such reform to pass the Senate, he told MSNBC.
The Trump campaign has signaled he might be opening to softening on this issue, with a senior adviser saying the candidate would “take a look at all of the programs, including entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare” in budget reforms, though a spokesman later clarified that this was not necessarily about cutting the programs.
There’s also the matter of Trump’s central immigration platform – build the wall, deport everyone ban Muslims – that has earned derision from party leaders who have encouraged the party to be more inclusive.
“This is not conservatism,” Ryan told reporters after Trump first proposed it. “What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for and more importantly it’s not what this country stands for.”
It’s a minefield in diverse districts.
“If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life,” Sen. John McCain recently said, according to a Politico report.
Conservatives say easing up on such rhetoric would help down ballot Republicans run alongside Trump, and the presumptive candidate has already shown some interest in softening on that, telling Fox News it was just a “suggestion.”
This kind of evolution – however desired by those hoping he’ll move to the right on issues like transgender bathroom use – also makes conservatives anxious.
“With Donald, you’re only a tweet away from him reversing himself,” Blackwell said.
“The dilemma comes back to if he says it, does he mean it, and if he says it, will he change it a week later?” Club for Growth spokesman Doug Satchleben said, adding that he didn’t think the group could ever make peace with Trump after fighting him tooth and nail in the primary.
It’s this dilemma that, for some conservatives, makes the relationship unsalvageable.
“He’s on record saying everything about everything,” conservative radio host Steve Deace said. “The only truthful thing Donald Trump has said in this campaign is that it’s the Republican party, not the conservative party.”