During the Democratic National Convention in July, Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama ignited a fierce debate among liberals about how best to campaign against Donald Trump and the GOP in the fall campaign. In their respective primetime speeches, Obama and Clinton were at pains to distinguish Trump’s menacing authoritarianism from the headier traditions of Republicanism and conservative thought.
“Look, we Democrats have always had plenty of differences with the Republican Party, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s precisely this contest of idea that pushes our country forward,” Obama said. “But what we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican—and it sure wasn’t conservative.”
“He’s taken the Republican Party a long way ... from ‘Morning in America’ to ‘Midnight in America,’” Clinton said one night later.
The goal was quite explicitly to reach Republican voters horrified by Trump but uneasy about supporting a Democrat, and lower a ladder for them. By creating a temporary alliance with anti-Trump Republicans, they could put together a maximal coalition, to combat a maximal threat.
That never really came to pass. Trump has shed support among college-educated whites, but in the weeks after the convention the race tightened much more than Clinton expected, and the mass GOP defections she hoped for didn’t materialize. Until, of course, the emergence on Friday of a horrifying videotape in which Trump brags about committing sexual assault with impunity. Suddenly, dozens of Republicans understand the value of creating distance between themselves and Trump. The problem for them is that just as they’ve decided they want as little to do with Trump as possible, Clinton and her allies have decided to pull up the ladder and leave them stranded.
Clinton and Obama’s outreach to Republicans this summer infuriated their critics on the left, including within official party committees. The two party leaders, they argued, were making a profound error of strategic and historical analysis: Trump wasn’t an aberration so much as a logical consequence of the GOP’s adoption of the Southern strategy, and the more proximate decision to resist Obama’s presidency with raw white grievance politics. To suggest these choices didn’t prefigure Trump was to let Republicans further down ballot off the hook for their complicity in Trump’s rise, and allow them to decouple from him in the eyes of these same squeamish Republican voters.
This objection, though persuasive in the abstract, struck me as politically overthought. The Clinton-Obama big-tent message wouldn’t stop Senate candidates and state parties from attacking Republicans as a bunch of mini-Trumps; and in any case, a truly divided party would crater in an election no matter how deftly Republicans attempted to dissociate themselves from their presidential candidate.
That was more than two months ago.
For the past 10 weeks, Republicans at all levels of government decided to normalize Trump rather than quarantine him. They overwhelmingly rejected Clinton and Obama’s invitation to break ranks from Trump, until the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape shattered their delusions and sent many running for safety.
“I think it’s pretty stunning that after the debate, the speaker of the House has to come out and say that he will no longer defend Donald Trump and that each Republican member of Congress has to decide for themselves whether or not they’re going to support their party’s nominee,” Clinton’s communications director, Jen Palmieri, told reporters Monday. “I understand why they’re doing that, but Paul Ryan and other leaders in the Republican Party—there was a time where they could have spoken out. That time was this summer. And obviously it’s too late now. Somewhat of a civil war is breaking out in the Republican Party, but I think that Donald Trump didn’t become the nominee of his party on his own. These leaders helped legitimize him and I think they have a lot to answer for and the voters I imagine will hold them accountable.”
Last week, Palmieri was even more specific, telling reporters, “One thing that we would note is people like John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Rob Portman, Congressman [Joe] Heck, we think they have a lot to answer for. These are leaders of the Republican Party that legitimized Donald Trump’s candidacy, that propped him up a number of times. Kelly Ayotte herself has said on 30 different occasions that she supports him, she said as recently as a week ago that he was a role model.”
The unambiguous message is that Clinton’s offer not to treat Trump as a totem of the Republican Party has expired. Obama underscored the shift in strategy this week when he upbraided these Republicans for sticking with Trump through disgrace after disgrace. “Why’d it take so long for some of them to finally walk away?” he asked. The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA has seemingly picked up these signals and will begin airing ads in Senate battlegrounds in the coming days.
Clinton’s conservative critics will surely object that her magnanimous-sounding offer was always a feint. But consider that until the Republican Party descended into total chaos, Republican candidates were doing a pretty good job decoupling themselves from Trump without much Democratic resistance. Incumbent GOP senators in every competitive state were running significantly ahead of him, aided in some measure by Clinton’s consistent message that Trump is an altogether different beast.
The GOP’s reaction to the Trump tape created the perfect occasion for phasing out this overly generous gesture, because it laid bare the devil’s bargain Republicans made this past summer.
Trump has shocked the national conscience at a sadistic clip, and every time, Republicans either shrugged it off or offered up some performative disquiet about it—until finally Trump was caught saying something so toxic to GOP politics that they finally reached a breaking point. Some of these officeholders defected from Trump altogether. Others, like North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, decided they’d wait to see how “grab ’em by the pussy” polls in their states. “I am going to watch his level of contrition over the next few days,” Burr said, “to determine my level of support.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio—the Tea Party darling cum empathic party savior cum presidential candidate cum #NeverTrump Republican cum Trump supporter—issued a statement saying, “I disagree with [Trump] on many things, but I disagree with his opponent on virtually everything. I wish we had better choices for President. But I do not want Hillary Clinton to be our next President. And therefore my position has not changed.”
Over the course of Trump’s campaign, vanishingly few Republicans broke ranks with him as a matter of conscience. And in the past few days they’ve done so only in the interest of self-preservation.
“Republicans are not shocked; they’re scared,” wrote New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister. “Donald Trump is losing and they are beginning to understand that his loss is going to expose them, not simply to partisan defeat, but as a party that has been covert in its cohesion around the very biases that he makes coarse and plain…. Republicans are not separate from Trump, and he is not distinct from Republican nature or motivation; he is its slightly more unruly twin.”
Clinton’s critics in the Democratic Party will wonder whether she should have recognized this earlier—whether it’s too late now to leash Trump to these cynical Republicans in time to defeat them, and maximize Democratic Party gains on Capitol Hill. I’m skeptical that one strategic approach was clearly superior to the other. Clinton and Obama would’ve looked like geniuses if she’d managed to sustain her post-convention lead on the strength of Republican disunity and crossover support; instead she can claim to have made a meaningful gesture that Republicans rejected until it was too late. At some level, I suspect she knew it was an offer they wouldn’t accept—in part because victory still appeared to be in reach, and in part because Republicans really did beget Trumpism. Now that they realize the magnitude of their error, she’s decided to stop excusing them. Now that their voters are starting to peel away, I suspect that she’ll be quick to remind them who had Trump’s back.