As Republicans decide whether to continue associating themselves with Donald Trump, or to abandon or even oppose his candidacy, as Meg Whitman did this week, they might reflect on the experience of Ted Cruz during the summer of 2015.
They are presently erring in just the same way.
Then as now, the Texas senator wanted to be seen by the public as a man of principle. Yet when he declined to criticize Trump’s bad behavior, he didn’t defend his rival on the merits or cite a principled reason for holding his tongue. Rather, he kept declaring that criticizing Donald Trump is just what the Washington establishment and the media wanted him to do, so he wasn’t going to do it.
The answer played well with the Republican base. That’ll show ‘em!
But if you think about Cruz’s formulation, it undermined the notion that he is a man of principle. In his telling, whether or not he would criticize Trump didn’t turn on a judgment about whether his rival’s actions merited criticism; in his telling, a major factor guiding him was the need to oppose whatever liberal elites wanted.
Outsourcing his judgment in this manner was doomed to fail.
Trump was always going to keep saying and doing things that transgressed against principles that Cruz held dear. Ultimately, the Texan could not escape this choice: abandon his principles, sacrificing his character and political future; or defend his principles, which required criticizing Trump, which liberal elites would like. The notion that he should refrain from doing anything liberals elites wanted proved self-destructive.
This week, President Obama urged Republicans to withdraw their support from Trump, arguing that his policy ignorance and public statements made him unfit for the Oval Office. “This isn't a situation where you have an episodic gaffe,” Obama said. “This is daily and weekly where they are distancing themselves from statements he's making. There has to be a point at which you say, 'This is not somebody I can support for president, even if he purports to be a member of my party.'"
For John Podhoretz of Commentary and the New York Post, Obama’s statement was genius trolling. “No one in the GOP will dare follow the prescription he has suggested in his remarks — precisely because he’s the one making the suggestion,” he wrote. “If House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were in fact thinking about withdrawing their endorsements of Trump, they could not possibly do so now. They would not appear to be retracting their endorsements out of principle but rather in craven capitulation to the Democratic president who is trying to get his Democratic successor elected. And he knows it. He isn’t calling on them to do the right thing. He’s wrapping Trump around them and the GOP like a boa constrictor in hopes that the party’s leader is going to cut off the circulation to the party’s body and leave it suffocated, bloodless and dead.”
If Obama is really maneuvering Republican leaders into a position that will kill their party, he will only able to succeed if the GOP and its leaders operate with a self-imposed disadvantage—deciding that even if a given action is both morally right and the course that makes the most longterm sense for Republicans politically, they will do the opposite, ignoring their moral compass and acting against their long term interests, if it means they can avoid the appearance of agreeing with the liberal elite.
Outsourcing their judgment in this manner—as if a course of action is automatically wrong just because Obama urges it—will work out no better than it did for Cruz.
Whether Trump remains in the national political arena for the next few months or the next few years, he will keep saying and doing things that transgress against basic morality, conservative principles, and the long-term interests of the Republican Party. Paul Ryan can either abandon his principles, sacrificing his character and political future; or defend his principles, which requires fully rejecting Trump, regardless of how painful or inconvenient that may be for him in the short term.