Friday, June 17, 2016

The GOP's Slow Motion Train Wreck

I’ve read multiple articles detailing what establishment Republicans would like to do to thwart Donald Trump in his march toward the nomination at next month’s convention in Cleveland.  The Daily Beast reports today that House Speaker Paul Ryan, who endorses Trump, said in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd to be aired on this Sunday’s Meet the Press, “The last thing I would do is tell anybody to do something that’s contrary to their conscience.”  As the most powerful elected Republican in the country, and as chairman of the Republican National Convention, Ryan’s words could be a signal to convention delegates to nominate a candidate per their consciences.  Also, the Washington Post reports today that “[d]ozens of Republican convention delegates are hatching a new plan to block Donald Trump at this summer’s party meetings, in what has become the most organized effort so far to stop the businessman from becoming the GOP nominee.” 

Further, Trump is beginning to encounter difficulty in fundraising.  According to a Politico report Thursday, the Republican National Committee gave Trump a list of about 20 names of the biggest campaign donors they know.  Trump reportedly called just three of them before giving up, and it’s unclear if he followed up with anyone after that.  Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s expansive ground organization and fundraising capabilities will easily have her with close to the $1 billion she’ll need to wage her campaign.

Finally, poll after poll suggests that Trump’s chances of victory against Clinton are getting slimmer and slimmer.  Bloomberg this week has him 12 points behind, and on average he’s at least six points behind.  The only major group where his favorable rating exceeds his unfavorable rating is among white men with no college degree.  His unfavorable rating among women is 77 percent; among Hispanics it’s 87 percent, and among African-Americans it’s a whopping 94 percent.  Clinton also high pretty high unfavorables, but she’s not even in the same league as Trump.  There's a huge chance that Clinton could, in the most polarized political environment in US history since the Civil War, pull out a double-digit win in November.

Given his dismal chances, his poor fundraising, and the open efforts by members of the GOP to deny him the nomination next month, it’s gotten me thinking about just what could happen if Trump were not the nominee.  How would his voter base react?  How would that affect the party as a whole?  Would the fallout be worse than having him finish the contest all the way to November, where he’d lose spectacularly to the more qualified Hillary Clinton?  If they did deny him the nomination, who then would be the nominee, and what would that do to their chances in November (and beyond)?

As I see it, the Republicans have a few choices:
  1. Support Trump as vigorously as they can.  As Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary, might have quipped, “You go into a campaign with the nominee you’ve got, not the nominee you wish you could have gotten.”  The voters have spoken, and Donald Trump has earned more delegates and more votes than any of the other 16 candidates who ran against him.  Delegates are currently bound by RNC rules to vote for the candidates who won their respective districts/states.  If they support him aggressively, using the formidable Republican media machine, they could potentially re-brand him and to make him more universally palatable.  Hey, it could happen! However, this option required Trump to pivot toward the center and act like a presidential candidate.  Instead, we’ve all seen and heard about his ridiculous statements over the past six weeks since securing the delegates to win nomination.  As usual, he’s made it all about him, and the polling in recent weeks has definitely shown that he’s done himself no favors with his orange-framed maw.  I won’t use this space to detail all he’s said and done.  You’d do much better to read James Fallows’s chronicle over at The Atlantic; it’s gobsmacking.  Moreover, his supporters like him exactly the way he is.  Making him seem more “politically correct” would undermine all he’s said for the past year against being politically correct.  Since Trump has already failed to be a more conventional candidate, any effort they now make to re-brand him would probably do more harm than good.  Not a good option.
  2. Back away slowly from Trump and quietly focus on down-ballot races. This appears to be the option they are choosing at the moment.  Slowly, high-level Republican elites are going public with their desire for a different nominee.  Mitt Romney convened a gathering in the past two weeks in Park City, Utah to discuss their options.  Even Ryan and RNC Chair Reince Priebus attended, mostly to make the case for supporting Trump.  It’s highly unusual – and not a little entertaining – to see all of this happening in full view.  It should tell us something about the level of desperation the party feels now that they have Trump as their nominee.
  3. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.  "I don't think he's racist but he's playing the race card... If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it," Senator and former GOP presidential candidate Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently told CNN. "There'll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary."  There are already other Senators and Representatives who are urging their fellow Republicans to dump Trump as soon as possible.

Whatever their choice is, the GOP must contend with fallout from Trump’s supporters.  They won’t like anything that undermines their guy.  Further, diehard GOP operatives who have fallen in line behind Trump out of party loyalty will not appreciate the damage that actions taken against Trump will do to the party.  Further, should the efforts succeed in dumping Trump, any Republican who spends the next five months as the Trump alternative will have committed political suicide.  The party would be in shambles, perhaps irretrievably broken, and there would not be enough votes to defeat Clinton.  This is the kind of scorched-earth scenario that former Republican operatives like Bruce Bartlett have wanted to see.  The thinking is that a demoralized and destroyed GOP would only be so for a short while.  Out of those ashes could come a saner, more disciplined party that has forever exorcised its Tea Party and Trumpist demons, a party that actually wants to govern and has real ideas based in a real-life understanding of what’s happening in the world (e.g. climate change, demographics, healthcare). 

And what of those hardcore Trump supporters now?  As Trump said, if he’s denied the nomination, whether by rules changes, or an outright contested convention, his followers would definitely resist.  “I think you’d have riots,” he told CNN in March.  “I’m representing a tremendous many, many millions of people.” That was three months ago, however.  Since then, Trump’s supporters have watched him steadily debase himself and fail to unify the party behind him.  Should the party erupt in open rebellion, they may be very hard-pressed to stand by their man all the way to November. If the party establishment successfully denied him the nomination, these people could stay home on Election Day, which would be a disaster for down-ballot races.  The House and Senate could be put into play for real (the Senate actually is in play right now, but the gerrymandering-protected House could also fall). 

The conventional wisdom a few weeks ago was that the media would build Trump up and tear Hillary down in order to make this a horse race.  I think the media would find it very difficult indeed to build up what Trump is showing them now, or to tear down Hillary based on the solid, even-handed approach she’s taken. 

Regardless of what happens between now and the convention, it’s nothing if not fascinating to watch.  Like a slow-motion train wreck.  No matter what the GOP decides to do, they won’t be able to stop the wreck from happening.