“Character matters. (Trump) is obviously not going to win. But he can still make an honorable move: Step aside and let Mike Pence try.”
Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse two weeks ago
CHRIS WALLACE : “I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election?”
DONALD TRUMP: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now. I’ll look at it at the time.”
The third presidential debate October 19, 2016
Sometime in the late evening of November 8 as it becomes clear that Donald J. Trump has led the Republican Party over an electoral cliff the recriminations will begin. For students of politics, and particularly for those who abhor the charlatan that has held the GOP hostage for the last 18 months, it will be good sport to watch the blood letting, but soon more important issues will become obvious.
Surely there will be a price to pay for those who aided and abetted Trumpism. The elected officials who condemned the man, but managed to twist their logic in such a way that they could still cast a vote for him will wear that scarlet letter for the rest of their days. A cosmetic patch of political Bondo will not easily repair what Republican strategist Steve Schmidt has called “the intellectual rot” at the heart of the Grand Old Party.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has asked the right question, a question we will be hearing more and more post-Trump: “What is the Republican Party?”
Dionne wonders “whether Republican congressional leaders have any connection with the seething grass roots whose anger they stoked during the Obama years but always hoped to contain. Mr. Trump is the product of their colossal miscalculations.
“And then there are the ruminations of millions of quiet Republicans — local business people and doctors and lawyers and coaches and teachers. They are looking on as the political institution to which they have long been loyal is refashioned into a house of bizarre horrors so utterly distant from their sober, community-minded and, in the truest sense of the word, conservative approach to life.”
Much time and attention will be lavished on the future fortunes of House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Trump denouncer who nevertheless continues to say he will vote for a man he likely can’t imagine having dinner with. Mr. Speaker will struggle. You heard it here firste.
And what of John McCain, once a truth teller on the budgetary excesses of his own party, a pragmatist about the need for immigration reform and a realist about the impact of money on politics? Facing the very real political dilemma of repudiating Trump – remember Trump early on attacked McCain’s military service – and alienating his core of angry voters or wringing his hands over Trump’s embrace of Putin and disdain of personal character,
McCain has been like horse droppings after a Fourth of July parade – all over the place. He finally and certainly belatedly abandoned Trump after “the tape,” but some how saw fit to stick with Trump through his attacks on a federal judge, the Gold Star family and revelations about Trump’s taxes, charity scams and business failures. Sex and vulgar talk about sex was apparently the deal breaker.
The cynical might dismiss McCain’s election year straddle as merely the pragmatic machinations of a old pol riding to the last roundup, but how to explain a waffle like that of Idaho Senator James Risch who is not on the ballot this year and would have little to lose by standing up to a loser? Risch, an early Marco Rubio supporter then a reluctant Ted Cruz guy, still sticks with Trump despite what the senator call the “the vulgar and indefensible revelations relating to the Republican nominee’s character.”
It all comes down to the Supreme Court, Risch says, “Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country. I will cast my vote for the Republican nominee.” The country will be fine, senator, as to abandoning character as a presidential requirement, that is problematic.
By Thanksgiving it will be difficult to find anyone who will admit to having voted for the most unfit presidential candidate in any of our lifetimes, but the political battlefield will be strewn with the remains of the gutless Republicans who stood with him at the edge of the cliff and then beyond. If Trump turns out to inflict as much damage to the Republican Party as seems likely – loss of younger voters, suburban women and minorities for a generation perhaps – supporting the guy who took the party into the gutter will be in the first paragraph of many political obituaries.
As conservative commentators Michael Gerson (George W. Bush’s speechwriter), George Will, David Brooks and Max Boot – all “Never Trump” critics – have said repeatedly, the GOP has faced in this campaign its modern day McCarthy Moment. What do you do in the face of a deeply troubled, dangerous and profoundly unfit political figure? Most elected officials have buckled in the face of the moral challenge that demanded a repudiation of Trump. Those who have not – John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Condoleezza Rice among a few others – will be remembered for putting country before buffoonery.
Those who pulled a McCain or a Risch will be remembered for their profiles in political cowardice. They will continue to try to dress it up as merely sticking with the party, but the recriminations will take care of that fiction.
“Trump’s descent into ideological psychosis is tainting the reputation of all who were foolish enough to associate with him,” Michael Gerson wrote this week. He took particular note of vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, “one of the chief promoters of Christian morality in politics employing the ethical reasoning of 9-year-olds in the schoolyard. Someday Pence (and others) will look back on their shattered standards and ask: For this cause? For this man?”
Joseph McCarthy’s antics – character assassination, wild exaggeration and lying demagoguery – defined the Republican Party in the early 1950s, but a decent and well-intended man, Dwight Eisenhower, keep the GOP from falling completely under McCarthy’s sway. Barry Goldwater, never on his worst day as totally unfit for office as the current nominee, redirected the GOP rightward in the 1960s and eventually passed the reigns to Ronald Reagan, a president who stood for virtually everything Donald Trump fumes against. That history leaves us to ponder who will emerge from the coming wreckage to re-build a party suffering from “intellectual rot” after having sold its soul to a huckster?
So many who might aspire to that job will have to spend the next many months picking through the Trump wreckage, attempting to salvage their own sense of purpose after caving to a craven opportunist. How much better for these Republicans to have pulled a Margaret Chase Smith, the Maine GOP senator who denounced McCarthy early as an act of conscience, rather than continue to try and explain the inexplicable.
After all how do you explain next month, next year or ever why it was you stood for this cause, for this man?