Monday, May 30th, 2016
By Reed Galen
Quote by a Smart Person: “I’m incapable of hiding my feelings when I’m around someone I don’t like.” Joanne Harris
Campaign 2016 has pushed the Republican Party’s existential crisis to the fore. Even before Donald Trump’s ascendance to GOP standard-bearer, the dozen or so debates between the presidential candidates showed deep rifts in the party’s three traditional pillars: small government, social conservatism and hawkish national security. Those rifts are deeper now that the Inside the Beltway set continues to wring its hands over what Trump represents and their belief that this is a merely a moment in time rather than a radical shift in the core beliefs of Republican voters.
But if we believe that Trump is not the cause of this new strain of conservatism but the expression of it, down ballot Republican candidates must decide how they will navigate through the shark infested waters of an election cycle unlike any in living memory. Politicians don’t like risk and like the unknown not at all. But 2016 is presenting them with nothing less than dealing with extreme risk while blindfolded. For many, they’re standing at the door of the airplane hoping that their parachute was packed by a professional and not by an employee of the Acme Corporation.
To Trump or not to Trump, that is the question. As a Republican candidate do you “endorse” him and hope against hope your opponent doesn’t tie you to his most inflammatory comments? Do you say you’ll vote for him but withhold a formal endorsement, an act of needle threading that only a few, truly talented pols can pull off. Or do you go into full rebel and repudiate Trump and his nativism? Each has its own particular problems. Decide to take on Trump frontally and you risk not only alienating your base voters who might believe the Trump is the antidote to the sickness that’s infected America, but Trump is likely to personally and forcefully attack you in a manner that you, as a professional politician, are neither prepared to handle nor equipped to adequately respond.
The Gordian Knot
As Ward Baker, Executive Director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee stated a week ago, US Senate candidates need to run less like a senator and more like a sheriff. If all politics is local, Republican candidates — mostly Federal candidates — need to focus laser-like on the issues about which their constituents are most concerned and try and avoid being swept away in a wave far beyond your control. Candidates like Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Sen. Kelley Ayotte (R-NH) are prime examples of very talented and well-respected Republican legislators who face the fight of their lives because the mood of the country and their own voters has turned so distinctly negative. Each of them represents what the GOP needs in the Senate. Each of them will have to battle it out, day after day, and hope that Trump doesn’t become an albatross from which they can’t escape.
Hedging Hedgers who Hedge
Many prominent Republicans have announced that they will forgo the party conclave in Cleveland just seven weeks from now. Those who are attending and participating are making a value judgement that, even with the Convention being the Donald Trump Variety Show, it is better to be on good terms with GOP faithful than turn their backs on thousands of delegates and hundreds of thousands of dollars in free airtime.
This calculation supposes that the post-November Republican party will re-moderate itself back to something resembling what it was in 2000 or 2008. That is a big gamble. Republican voters had a dozen Establishment-type options to choose from this year and left each of them in the rubbish bin. For younger candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) he’s attending and participating in the GOP Convention because he likely believes to do otherwise means closing his door on any further national ambitions. The more salient question is, despite his age, whether a candidate such as Rubio has a future within the Republican party as its currently constituted. Though he was a Tea Party insurgent swept to office in 2010, that rebellious run is long forgotten by the faithful, replaced by stinging memories of the Gang of Eight immigration deal that his opponents on a national stage will never let conservative voters forget.
Who’s Zoomin’ Who?
In the US House of Representatives, the most conservative members style themselves the “Freedom Caucus.” At the state legislative level, conservative legislators dominate Assemblies and State Senates as each of them try to outdo one another on political purity. In states such as Texas, it’s not enough just to be very conservative, you must be arch-conservative or risk a primary challenge from your right. If the more conservative option consistently wins, we can make the argument that the politicians are chasing the voters as the electorate moves to the right. This presents a real challenge for the GOP Establishment not only today but into the future as these Statehouse representatives begin looking to Federal office to further their ambitions.
We (and by we I mean Republican political professionals) have ignored our voters for too long and missed the signs, year after year, cycle after cycle, that they were so clearly sending our way. In 2010, we denigrated the numerous Tea Party candidates who defeated our Establishment favorites, who subsequently went on to get crushed in the General Election that year. We have continually misread the signs as more and more far-right candidates have been elected. Now we’re reaping the whirlwind of that ignorance.
End Note: Bill Kristol’s Continuing Third Party Crusade
This weekend, Bill Kristol, maven of the Neoconservative right in Washington, hinted that he had finally landed upon a third party candidate who would run against both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the fall campaign. As I’ve written previously and extensively, at this late date an independent bid is a one-way trip for a politician. There is likely no coming back to the party fold in 2017. There is also little-to-no chance that said candidate can qualify for anything close to 270 electoral votes. So why does Kristol continue this quixotic crusade?
There are likely three reasons that live in parallel to one another but also leave Kristol in a better position than he is today. With Donald Trump as the GOP nominee, Kristol finds his influence diminished within the power set of Washington as a Trump presidency would likely ignore him altogether. Kristol’s independent candidate keeps him in the news as someone to be listened to and who “matters” and most importantly, keeps him on set for the Sunday shows. If his candidate by some miracle garners enough electoral votes to throw the Presidential race to the US House, Kristol can style himself as a kingmaker. And if the most likely scenario occurs: Kristol’s candidate is crushed, shutout of the Electoral College and sends Hillary Clinton to the White House with 400 electoral votes, he can continue in perhaps his favorite role: that of the hawkish scold of a Democratic administration too weak on national security. So you see, for ole Bill, it’s a win-win-win.