A Bad Week for the GOP's Big Tent

Republicans want to remain united while reaching out to minorities. The Confederate flag and Donald Trump aren't helping.

Here's a pretty good sign you're having a bad day. You're a major party leader, and you have to make clear at a press conference that no, you don't believe the Confederate flag should be flown at federal cemeteries, and that no (again), you don't agree with a presidential candidate from your party who has suggested many Hispanic immigrants are diseased rapists.

That was Thursday for Speaker John Boehner, and this is 2015 for the Republican Party, whose efforts to broaden its appeal to minorities keep running headlong into stubborn obstacles—like a 150-year old fight over the Civil War and a real-estate mogul with a talent for sucking up media oxygen.

So instead of talking about the historic scene at the South Carolina Capitol—where the Legislature has approved removing the Confederate flag at the urging of a rising-star Republican governor—the press is focused on the drama at the U.S. Capitol, where a band of Southern Republicans pressed their party leaders to give them a vote on preserving the legality of putting Confederate flags on gravestones.

That amendment likely wouldn't have passed—many non-Southern Republicans probably would have joined with Democrats to oppose it. But even bringing the language to the floor would have opened wounds within the House GOP, forcing members to take a vote that could have subjected them to a challenge either in a primary or a general election.

Pulling the bill didn't solve the GOP's problem, it just postponed it. The underlying spending measure will return at some point, even if it's wrapped into an end-of-year omnibus bill.

And regardless of timing, the entire episode gave Democrats an enormous PR opportunity, and they were happy to take it. Democrats paraded to the floor to denounce Republicans and the Confederate flag, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi forced a procedural vote on a measure to ban state flags with the Confederate symbol from the Capitol. Republicans voted to send the measure to committee, but Democrats will surely try to bring it back again and again.

Over at the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest seemed happy to take a break from discussing the maybe-maybe-not Iran nuclear deal to chat about Republicans' Confederate flag fight: "A sizable number of House Republicans are eager to protect the status of the Confederate flag on National Park Service grounds. These are the same House Republicans who voted for a party leader who once described himself as 'David Duke without the baggage,'" Earnest said Thursday, taking a shot at House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.

Republican leaders are beyond the first step: They know they have a problem. The leadership did, in fact, pull the flag language from the floor rather than subjecting members to the vote. Boehner did, in fact, say that he did not support the Confederate flag's display at cemeteries, and the leadership wants it known that—unlike the House minority—it is trying to find consensus on a difficult issue.

"Boehner offered a thoughtful and responsible way to address the issue and Pelosi responded with a cheap political stunt," said Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith.

As for Trump, The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus held a lengthy call with the mogul, "urging the presidential candidate to tone down his inflammatory comments about immigration that have infuriated a key election constituency."

That doesn't mean Trump will change his tune, nor do party leaders expect him to heed their wishes. Why would he start now? But the Post story, complete with on-the-record quotes from the RNC, sends the signal to key GOP elected officials and donors that the party is trying to staunch the bleeding.

And on the bright side, it's Thursday. At least the week is almost over.