Two interesting campaign articles today both point out a frightening new reality for the Republican Party. Previously considered unthinkable, unconceivable and downright unimaginable, some Republicans are now struggling to come to grips with the fact that Donald Trump might actually become their party's standard-bearing presidential nominee. The first of these articles, from the New York Times, documents how "irritation is giving way to panic" over Trump-as-GOP-nominee, because many in the party feel that this could "imperil the careers of other Republicans." It continues:
Many leading Republican officials, strategists and donors now say they fear that Mr. Trump's nomination would lead to an electoral wipeout, a sweeping defeat that could undo some of the gains Republicans have made in recent congressional, state and local elections. But in a party that lacks a true leader or anything in the way of consensus -- and with the combative Mr. Trump certain to scorch anyone who takes him on -- a fierce dispute has arisen about what can be done to stop his candidacy and whether anyone should even try.
The article has plenty of alarming quotes which detail how widespread the panic has already become. From a former GOP chair in Illinois: "If he's our nominee, the repercussions of that in this state would be devastating." From the GOP chairman in Ohio: "If he carries this message into the general election in Ohio, we'll hand this election to Hillary Clinton -- and then try to salvage the rest of the ticket." Another Ohio Republican (when asked in an email what Trump's effect would be on the election in his state) just sent a link to the Wikipedia page on the 1964 congressional elections, when following Barry Goldwater meant losing 36 House seats for Republicans.
Senator Lindsey Graham (who is still officially running against Trump for the nomination, it bears mentioning) had the most forceful response: "It would be an utter, complete and total disaster. If you're a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot, you're going to have a hard time being president of the United States, and you're going to do irreparable damage to the party."
Remember, these are all criticisms and doomsaying from Republicans, about the man who (if the polling holds steady, as it has so far) has the best chance of becoming their party's nominee. It's all pretty extraordinary language for Republicans to be using against one of their own. I guess Ronald Reagan's famed "11th Commandment" ("Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican") doesn't apply when it comes to Trump, eh?
One unnamed Republican senator pleaded for outside groups and Republican donors to band together to take down Trump. "There is not a bit of confusion among our members that if Donald Trump is the nominee, we're going to get wiped out," he said. The only problem is, as the article points out: "the same reason the senator insisted on anonymity explains why, just two months before the Iowa caucuses, there has been no such ad campaign: To step up in that way would be to invite the wrath of Mr. Trump, who relishes belittling his critics."
Another Republican senator, Lamar Alexander, warned of the possible blowback from even attempting attacks on Trump: "I think it would play into his hands and only validate him. A 'Stop Trump' effort wouldn't work, and it might help him."
All of this gives rise to a certain amount of pity for the man in charge of defending Republican Senate seats this election cycle, Ward Baker (head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee). The Washington Post just ran an article which helpfully leaked a rather extraordinary internal memo from Baker to his fellow Republicans, on the subject of what to do if Trump does actually become the nominee. As is normal in documents such as these, there is plenty of nuts-and-bolts campaign advice that could have been circulated in just about any election year. But what leaps out from all the boilerplate election advice is the fear and confusion Trump is sowing among Republicans. The document's very first bullet point starts off:
Trump is a Misguided Missile. Let's face facts. Trump says what's on his mind and that's a problem. Our candidates will have to spend full time defending him or condemning him if that continues. And, that's a place we never, ever want to be.
That's just too bad, though, because that's exactly the place Republican voters seem to want to go this year. The rest of the memo tries to have things both ways on Trump. Somehow, Republican candidates are supposed to thread the needle of largely agreeing with Trump, while at the same time denouncing what comes out of his mouth. This includes the warning: "Trump is subject to farcical fits," which, the memo advises, should be counted by: "taking Trump to task on outrageous statements where the media won't let you off the hook." That dastardly media, always asking tricky questions like: "So what do you think of what your party's presidential candidate just said, Senator?"
At the same time, Republican senators are supposed to simultaneously agree with Trump while denouncing him: "Trump will continue to advance those messages, but you don't have to go along with his more extreme positioning. Instead, you should stake out turf in the same issue zone and offer your own ideas." So, maybe: "We'll build a wall, but it won't be as beautiful as Trump wants," or something?
On some issues, however, the memo advises completely disagreeing with Trump:
Trump and Women. Houston, we have a problem: Donald Trump has said some wacky things about women. Candidates shouldn't go near this ground other than to say that your wife or daughter is offended by what Trump said. We do not want to reengage the "war on women" fight so isolate Trump on this issue by offering a quick condemnation of it.
But, overall, Republican candidates are supposed to: "limit the Trump criticisms (other than obvious free kicks), and grab onto the best elements of the anti-Washington populist agenda," in order to "ride that wave" of Trump populism. Cowabunga! Surf's up!
As I said, it all makes you feel a little sorry for Baker, because it's almost impossible to develop any coherent strategy against Donald Trump right now. Baker's memo is contradictory throughout, in its quest to offer some sort of "Trump-lite" strategy that the voters might respond to, while simultaneously attempting to sand off Trump's rough edges.
Anyone who thinks this will be any sort of easy task should ask pretty much every other Republican presidential candidate running what their experience has so far been. So far, nothing has worked. Agreeing with Trump, disagreeing with Trump, denouncing Trump -- all of it has been tried, and Trump still sits far above everyone else in the polling, a mere two months before Iowa kicks off the primary election race.
Up until very recently, those in the Republican establishment were happy to bury their heads in the sand -- right alongside pretty much every inside-the-Beltway journalist (left, right and center) -- where they all mumble to themselves over and over again: "It's got to end soon. Trump has to fall -- it's inevitable!" Now they're all finally waking up to the reality that this much-prophesied Trump fall has not happened yet, still shows no sign of happening any time soon, and (hardest of all to face) might not ever happen at all. "Trump could actually win the nomination," they are now whispering -- in panicked tones -- to each other.
What is most extraordinary about all this is the level of hatred and fear that this one man has inspired within his own party. When else has any sitting senator called his own party's frontrunner anything remotely as scathing as: "a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot," after all? When else has the fear of the frontrunner winning the party's nomination brought forth such predictions of electoral disaster as: "we're going to get wiped out," and "you're going to do irreparable damage to our party"? If Trump wins the nomination, Hillary Clinton's team can just cherry-pick the worst of these predictions -- perhaps "an utter, complete and total disaster" or "the repercussions would be devastating" -- to use in her general election campaign ads.
Democrats, of course, can be expected to welcome the news that Trump at the top of the GOP ticket might make things a heck of a lot easier for them, down-ticket. Trump might just hand the Senate to the Democrats, in fact. It's less likely that Trump's presence on the ballot would impact the House as much (due to gerrymandering and many pro-Trump Republican districts), but even so, you normally only hear such predictions from wonky poll-watching pundits. Doom-and-gloom predictions aren't usually espoused by members of the same party as the frontrunner being denounced -- at least not this early in the process.
The concept of "Republican nominee Donald Trump" is already causing a lot of panic in certain Republican circles. This panic is effused with naked fear, since nobody really has any bright ideas for how to avoid such a fate. But this previously-unthinkable concept is now looming as the most likely outcome, if the polls can be believed. In the coming weeks, look for the levels of panic and fear to rise dramatically within the Republican Party establishment. Already, many of them are publicly admitting that the 2016 election could be a disaster of Barry Goldwater-sized proportions (if they were Democrats, of course, it would be "of George McGovern-sized proportions"). Whether this is correct or not remains anyone's guess, at this point. But what's striking is that the unthinkable is now being thought about -- very hard, and with much handwringing -- in Republican circles.
Democrats, meanwhile, are metaphorically sitting back and enjoying their popcorn, while watching this entertaining reality show play out.
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