On Monday, Speaker Paul Ryan told House members that he would not defend Donald Trump or campaign with him, and that members should act in their own best interests in their individual districts. Ryan did not withdraw his previous endorsement of Trump, but to many that seemed more a matter of form than substance. Ryan’s statements produced an angry reaction from hardliners in the House and, inevitably, a farrago of pre-dawn cyberbabble from the would be Tweeter-in-Chief:
Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty. 6:05 AM – 11 Oct 2016
With the exception of cheating Bernie out of the nom the Dems have always proven to be far more loyal to each other than the Republicans! 7:15 AM – 11 Oct 2016
Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary. They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win – I will teach them! 7:48 AM – 11 Oct 2016
It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to. 7:00 AM – 11 Oct 2016
Paul Ryan’s endorsement of Trump in June had been made with conspicuous reluctance and nothing in the ensuing months had provided any reason for enthusiasm on the Speaker’s part. Many in the #NeverTrump movement had been critical of Ryan for not opposing Trump or at least refusing an endorsement. We, on the other hand, had been inclined to cut Ryan more slack on the grounds that his opposition would not have been effective in halting the Trump tsunami and that it might have made him needlessly vulnerable to the right-wing claque in the House that had succeeded in ousting John Boehner. Ryan’s change of position at this point was precipitated by the disclosure of a 2005 video tape on which Trump was seen graphically describing his own conduct as a sexual predator.
The video tape was so distasteful that within hours, dozens of prominent Republicans had announced that they would no longer support his candidacy. There was considerable speculation that Trump might quit the race or that the Republican National Committee might find a way to replace him. Alas, neither would occur. Trump pulled himself together enough to mount something of a defense at the scheduled debate with Hillary Clinton on Sunday. His defense consisted of an apology and a mantra that he had merely been engaging in “locker room banter.” After being repeatedly pressed by a moderator, Anderson Cooper, Trump uttered a terse denial that he had actually engaged in the conduct about which he had smugly boasted. Paul Ryan could not have been persuaded by Trump’s defense. Even Chris Christie, a prominent Trump supporter, found the apology insufficient and, unfortunately for Trump, his comments on the tape appeared far more believable than those he offered from the stage in St. Louis. (On Wednesday, the New York Times reported the stories of two women who recalled that Trump had treated them in exactly the manner he had described on the video. We think it likely that more such stories will emerge in the next few weeks.)
Nor would Ryan have been impressed by Trump’s other antics at the debate. Sensing the weakness of his “apologize and deny” strategy, Trump attempted to mount a counterattack based on long-stale allegations of sexual misconduct by Bill Clinton. To that end, he staged a pre-debate “press conference” to which he had invited, at his expense, three of Bill Clinton’s accusers. Also joining the spectacle was a woman who had been raped by a man whom Hillary Clinton had represented, at the request of the court, in 1975. It is unlikely that this sordid exercise impressed any undecided voters although it may have stoked the animal spirits of some in Trump’s base for whom Clintonphobia is paramount.
Later, during the debate, Trump continued to treat the event as an occasion for mud-wrestling, making the remarkable pronouncement that, if elected, he would ask his Attorney General to appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s “situation.” He then went further to tell Clinton that if he were president, “You’d be in jail.” That latter comment, the Weekly Standard told its its readers, “should terrify you and be disqualifying all on its own.” The only aspect of Clinton’s situation that Trump cited was in making a false allegation that she had destroyed 33,000 emails that were under subpoena. There is to be sure, much to criticize in Clinton’s handling of emails, but Trump’s threat of prosecution and incarceration was as ill-grounded as it was unsavory. Michael B. Mukasey, a former federal judge and attorney general in the George W. Bush administration (and a severe critic of Hillary Clinton) echoed numerous observers in comparing Trump’s threat to that of a dictator in a “banana republic.” “This is not the way we conduct politics here,” Mukasey said.
In short, there were abundant reasons for Ryan to distance himself from Trump and to advise House members that they were also free to do so. While some Republicans who had abandoned Trump over the weekend are now reported to have backtracked, we doubt that Ryan’s leadership will be subjected to any serious challenge. If it should be, however, Ryan must be vigorously defended.
The Wall Street Journal, in a rather agonized editorial on Tuesday, also recognized the need for House members to act as they see fit in hopes of assuring their own reelection and continued Republican control of that chamber. The Journal, however, also expressed a curious concern over the position of NeverTrumpians:
The more puzzling criticism comes from NeverTrumpians who appear willing to have Republicans lose the House and Senate as punishment for even associating with Mr. Trump. In that they are allied with the Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren Democrats, albeit themselves safely insulated from the political consequences. It makes no sense to purge Republicans who share your principles who will be needed to rebuild the GOP if Mr. Trump loses.
We do not know, and the Journal did not pause to tell us, what particular NeverTrumpians it had in mind. In fact, the talk of punishment runs principally the other way. There have been numerous reports of die-hard supporters of Trump who are promising to vote against those who decline to support their hero, and it is they who pose the greatest threat to Republican control of the Senate and House.
The Journal editor did highlight a significant problem for Republicans: According to a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll published Monday, “Some 67% of Republican voters said Congress should continue to support Mr. Trump, while 14% say they should call on him to drop out and 9% say they can’t support him personally.” Thus the problem is not just elected Republicans who continue to support Trump, but the constituents who support them. And that is a problem that will not go away on November 8, no matter what the result. The Republican Party must find a way of addressing the concerns of the deeply discontented who have been drawn to Trump, but it must do so in ways consistent with the ideals and traditions of the party. Without suggesting that those who hold deplorable views are themselves deplorable or irredeemable, there is a clear need for the party to expand—and change—its base.
Jennifer Rubin, a conservative writer in the Washington Post, put it very well:
The GOP certainly needs principled, forward leading candidates. But what it needs is a new constituency. The Fox TV audience/the talk show addicts/the birthers are incapable of sustaining viable candidates. The GOP as it is will never amount to an electoral majority, in part because what excites it turns off almost every other group. The crass, vulgar, angry and irrational mob that thrills when Trump acts like a madman is not a base around which a successful national party can be built. Know-nothingism, xenophobia and misogyny are enough to garner the GOP nomination, which explains why the GOP is unable to field a winning candidate.
It is no longer a matter of “just” losing minority and women voters. That was sufficient to give Dems a 200+ electoral vote advantage. Now, however, the Trump/Sean Hannity/Laura Ingraham/evangelical charlatan/anti-immigrant/nativist party cannot retain white-college educated voters or millennials. That is why the White House and very likely the Senate will be lost. It’s also why thoughtful Republicans understand that there should be an alternative to liberal statism. It is why there will need to be a party not dependent on Trumpkins, one accessible to educated people, minorities, women and others.
It will not be an easy task, but RINOcracy.com will be among the cheerleaders.