Former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis on the Election, ‘Branding’ Political Parties, and What’s Next

Amidst the record voter turnout for one of the most highly anticipated presidential elections, where does the nation stand? How might we heal? According to former seven-term U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), we’ve got some ways to go.

“It’s a divided country. We are divided,” said Davis at the outset of his appearance on November 10’s First Tuesday program. It was the ninth and final episode of the political campaign webinar series hosted by George Mason University Robinson Professor of Public Policy Steven Pearlstein. The series was sponsored by the Honors College and the Schar School of Policy and Government.

Davis, who recently stepped down as Mason’s rector, brought his political insights to a breakdown of one of the most controversial elections in our nation’s history. He knows a bit about divisiveness in politics: After declining to run for an eighth term he co-wrote the book The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis with former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas). Davis came to the conversation ready to analyze what happened in this year’s election.

Early on, the 2020 presidential election rose from the aftermath of a contentious presidential term, naming Donald Trump as the first president in history to be impeached, to lose the popular vote, and to hold only one term.

“Trump lost this [election] because of his personality,” Davis said, reflecting on Trump’s blunt mannerisms that have come to characterize the “brand” of his most loyal supporters. “It’s a bad brand for Republicans because the party, philosophically, has more to offer people…We’re not a party of entitlements, we’re a party of economic opportunity.”

Further building into this election, issues of social movements and pandemic response were fresh and influential in the minds of many voters, and Davis observed Trump’s radical attitude as the cause for gaining more opposition. In response to the handling of events surrounding George Floyd’s death, Davis pointed out, “For Trump, [this] was an opportunity to unify the country—and he didn’t know how to play on that other than polarize it, at a time the country was looking for some unity.”

The unity that was achieved, however, was the unity against the Republican president, as Davis emphasized, “Democrats were an anti-Trump party, not a progressive party.”

Yet despite the evident divide in our nation that seems larger than ever, Davis voiced a sense of optimism in the future, describing the election results as the outcome some may not have wanted, yet perhaps still “the government we needed.”

“[Now may be] time to slow down after some great tumultuous, divisive years,” Davis said. “Start talking to each other again instead of yelling at each other.”

Of course, the uncertain, post-election reality waits ahead, with new hurdles in store for both Republicans and Democrats, where Davis forecasts wrestling with major questions inside the dominant political parties.

“[Democrats] are going to have these fights now within the caucus of what they want that party to be,” he pointed out, describing whether they follow the progressive agenda of many young supporters or a more traditional agenda that many of the older generation of supporters favor.

Meanwhile, conservatives must answer with which values they best identify with. “Republicans are going to have to decide, ‘Do we want to keep Trump over the next four years, or do we want to shed him and put somebody else in?’” Davis asked.

Finally, perhaps beseeching his college audience, Davis said, “We need a new generation of leaders.”

Watch the rest of the First Tuesday series