The Impossible Task Facing Republican Leaders

The GOP’s elected officials find themselves working to salvage what they can of their party, without alienating their own voters.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus talks Trump (Scott Applewhite / AP)

Republican primary voters have nominated Donald Trump.

Republican politicians failed to stop them.

Now those politicians are taking much blame from conservative commentators for making their peace with their nominee—far more blame, in fact, than those who did the most to elevate Trump: Fox News and talk radio. But what, exactly, do critics think Republican politicians should be doing?

The day-in, day-out work of the politician is the management of electoral coalitions: coaxing, cajoling, compelling people to work together who—in the more natural course of things—might have nothing in common. It’s hard, slogging work, requiring much biting of tongues and averting of eyes. Unlike writers and intellectuals, politicians don’t have the freedom to work only with people they like and admire. Unlike writers and intellectuals, they have no duty to speak aloud their inner convictions—their work would become impossible if they did.

Politics unfortunately abounds in shams that must be treated reverentially for every politician who would succeed. If you are the sort of man whose stomach revolts against treating shams reverentially, you will be well advised to stay out of politics altogether and set up as a prophet; your prophecies may perhaps sow good seed for some future harvest. But as a politician you would be impotent. For at any given time the bulk of your countrymen believe firmly and devoutly, not only in various things that are worthy of belief, but also in illusions of one kind and another; and they will never submit to have their affairs managed for them by one who appears not to share in their credulity. …

That was the biting assessment of the British historian F.S. Oliver, in a classic work published almost a century ago. Oliver was talking specifically about the career of Robert Walpole. Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell would surely share the feeling. They all three would have preferred another nominee to Donald Trump. Very probably, they still regard him as unfit for the presidency and a danger to all their own highest political hopes. Their primary voters, however, made the choice for them, and now they have to figure out what to do about it.

What are their options?

Here are some things they know. Trump won the presidential nomination according to rules agreed in advance. Millions of their fellow Republicans have rightly or wrongly placed their faith in Donald Trump. If party leaders repudiate him, they’ll split the party—and probably end up with the smaller piece.

They also know that a fractured party will always lose on a much bigger scale than a united party. Since Ronald Reagan left office, eight presidential elections ago, the worst presidential election performance by a united party was the 45.6 percent gained by Michael Dukakis in 1988. The worst by a divided party: George H.W. Bush’s sub-Goldwaterian 37.6 percent in 1992.

When a presidential candidate loses big, moreover, the casualties can accumulate all the way down the ballot. Republicans lost 21 seats in the House in 2008, atop their 30-seat loss in 2006. They dropped 8 seats in the Senate, having already lost 6 in 2006.

And a presidential candidate is a party’s best fundraiser. The entire national campaign organization is built around him: voter identification, micro-targeting, get-out-the-vote efforts. There isn’t one bus to drive presidential voters to the polls and a second bus for down-ballot voters: It’s one ride per person, and if that person stays home to protest a presidential nomination, he or she is equally AWOL for members of Congress, governors, and state legislators.

Politicians may wish for better facts. But they have to work with the material at hand in hope of preventing even greater evils.

More F.S. Oliver: Nothing in politics is sadder than:

the man of sterling character whose genius is so antipathetic to the particular emergency in which he finds himself as to stupefy his thoughts and paralyze his actions. He drifts to disaster, grappling blindfolded which are beyond his comprehension, failing without really fighting.

Bad choices over the past decade by Republican political leaders opened the way to Donald Trump, yes.  For a decade, Republican voters have signaled they wanted to protect Medicare, cut immigration, fight fewer wars, and nominate no more Bushes. Their party leaders interpreted those signals as demands to cut Medicare, increase immigration, put boots on the ground in Syria, and nominate another Bush. Outdated ideology and obstinate donors impelled elected officials onto a disastrous path. More ideology and more obstinacy won’t rescue them from the cul-de-sac into which they walked themselves.

Their task ahead, in the Biblical phrase, is to pluck the brands from the fire—rescue as much of their party as can be rescued—while simultaneously minimizing the damage to party and country by the nominee their rank-and-file has imposed on them. They need to maneuver so that Trump’s defeat is as solitary as possible, and so that he cannot shift the blame for the failure he has earned onto the heads of others. They have to be ready to rebuild the day after the election, sifting through the Trump wreckage for what is fruitful for the future, discarding what is toxic, seeking to redirect the energies of his angry followers in ways productive for normal politics.

Trump’s taught Republican politicians that they’ve neglected the interests and values of their core supporters. He’s demonstrated that much of their party ideology is obsolete, and that their language no longer moves their voters. He’s proven that their party is less culturally conservative than they believed, less hostile to social insurance than they imagined, and more worried about the economic and social costs of mass migration than they realized. Those are valuable lessons that need to be absorbed and pondered.

He’s also demonstrated that he himself is a dangerous person, contemptuous of constitutional restrictions on the power of the presidency, hostile to fundamental freedoms, and worryingly impressed by foreign authoritarian rulers. To save themselves and their country, Republican politicians will have to rediscover the politician’s arts of deftness, flexibility, and self-preservation—while stealthily hastening Trump toward the defeat that almost certainly awaits him in November.

That’s a big job and a hard job, all the harder because they cannot acknowledge what they are doing. They will seem to help Trump win, while actually working to ensure he fails. They will speak as if they support him, while redirecting resources away from his presidential effort to down-ballot races they want to win—fully conscious that Trump will, if he can, do the opposite to them.

What Walter Lippman said of presidents is really true of all politicians: They are not “working through noble institutions to dear ends … but trying to grind out a few crude results from a decadent political machine.” The harms they stop are more important than the good they cannot achieve. What they’re called upon to do is to practice statesmanship without fine phrases; to protect the republic without receiving any credit for it. They will do all these things while those of us with easier jobs criticize them for not doing them—or anyway, for not doing them well enough, or fast enough, or wholeheartedly enough, or eloquently enough.

For just as the politicians have their job, so too do we, their critics. And while recognizing the necessity of the delicate functions politicians perform, we’re equally entitled to complain noisily about how they perform them.

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