Yesterday, President Obama took the unprecedented step of calling the opposing party’s nominee to replace him “unfit” for the office and asking for Republican leaders to rescind their endorsements of his candidacy. “There has to come a point at which you say, enough,” the president said. Meanwhile, three Republicans—Representative Richard Hanna, former gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, and former Chris Christie adviser Maria Comella—announced they would support Hillary Clinton in November. And in the face of a growing rebellion over his ongoing feud with the Muslim family of a slain U.S. soldier, Donald Trump announced he was not ready to support the re-election bids of three high-profile members of the GOP: John McCain, Paul Ryan, and Kelly Ayotte.
The events of the last week have led many to wonder why Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are still attempting to thread what has become an increasingly narrow needle. Both leaders have condemned Trump’s comments several times already, only to remain behind his candidacy. In the face of Trump’s remarks against the Khan family, their loyalty is beginning to seem foolhardy.
Of course, it’s one thing for Obama to call upon Republican leadership to denounce Trump, and quite another for them to follow through. Trump overwhelmingly won the Republican primaries. Indeed, he garnered more votes than any other Republican in history (although he also got the most votes against him too). Make no mistake, Ryan and McConnell, and senators like McCain, are relying heavily on these voters to turn out in the general election and vote for down-ticket Republicans. To pull their endorsements would be to effectively denounce these voters as well, falling into exactly the trap that Trump has often spoken of: that of an elite establishment that thinks it knows better than the voting public.
Alienating these voters is, in their minds, simply not an option, with control of the Senate clearly up for grabs. If Trump voters stay home, the argument goes, then Democrats win. Which explains the precarious balancing act Ryan and Co. are attempting: criticize Trump just enough to distance the party from Trump, but never outright condemn him and scare away his voters.
One has to wonder, however, if we’ve reached a turning point with the Khan story. Trump’s refusal to walk back his attacks on the Khans has dominated the headlines for days and presents a nearly existential conundrum for a party that prides itself on being a champion of the military. The cost-benefit analysis that these Republican leaders are engaging in may be shifting. Is holding on to the Senate really worth the irreparable harm that Trump is doing to the Republican brand?
Furthermore, there is little chance that the Khan controversy will be the last of Trump’s PR disasters. With future offenses seemingly inevitable, Republicans will time and again have to offer their mealy-mouthed condemnations, while Democrats, the press, and moderate conservatives will keep demanding that more forceful steps be taken. Standing by idly while Trump runs their party into the ground seems to be the very definition of spinelessness.
And when does Trump flip from being the party’s buoy to an anchor around its neck? The fear of turning away Trump voters rests on the assumption that he will attract more voters than he drives away. And yet, after a short period in which Trump was riding a post-convention high, it took only a few days for Clinton’s lead to magically reappear in the polls. There is the real threat that Trump’s accumulated offenses may inspire a massive turnout against him, not just by those he has offended, but also by people who suddenly feel the Republican Party no longer speaks for them. Already many are talking about how Republicans are losing college-educated white voters in droves. Certainly the fiscal conservatives and the neo-cons aren’t on board with Trump’s agenda, with several of them already saying they will never vote for him. What will happen to the GOP’s down-ticket candidates then?
At this late date, it seems unlikely that the GOP can save itself. Forcing Trump off the ticket, if such a thing were possible, would spark a massive rebellion, dooming any Republican who would dare to try to replace him. Running a split-ticket strategy—vote for Clinton and your Republican congressman—would be a highly complex undertaking that would similarly turn off Trump’s voters.
At every opportunity, Republican leaders have chosen the path of least resistance to Trump. Like deer trapped in headlights, they are paralyzed by their helplessness and indecision. And yet it seems like the riskiest choice of all may be to do nothing.