For Republicans, the primary may be over but this is still a time for choosing.
On Thursday, Donald Trump trotted up to Capital Hill to meet with Speaker Paul Ryan and the GOP leadership to try to assure them that he is not an electoral neutron bomb. Mutual hatred toward Hillary seems to be the closest the party can get to unity right now.
But despite a joint statement from Ryan and Trump after their meeting claiming “few differences,” the real divisions in the GOP right are deeper than ideology.
Fundamentally, this is a matter of individual principle versus party loyalty.
The Republican establishment is dividing into the Trump Resistance and the Trump Rationalizers.
Members of the Trump resistance look at his demagoguery and see disaster. For them, as Stuart Stevens has argued in The Daily Beast, refusing to support Trump is a moral decision more than a political one. Most of the leading figures on the center-right have chosen this path: both Presidents Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney along with blue state Republican governors like Charlie Baker, Bruce Rauner, and Larry Hogan. They don’t want to be tainted with support for Trump and his policies and vicious rhetoric when the reckoning and rebuilding comes.
The Trump Rationalizers are making a calculation that the famously authentic candidate has been lying to the base during most of the campaign to date. The Donald they know was just trying to seal the deal with the conservative populists by saying things that no New York billionaire could really believe. So they believe that he’ll break out a yuge Etch-a-Sketch and pivot to the center for the general election and, if it comes to that, governing.
Some of these rationalizers are simply motivated by self-interest. They see the Trump train as a way to get ahead. The elected officials will raise their profile, get prime speaking roles at the convention, and one will secure the vice presidential slot. Consultants see a chance to get rich on the ultimate gravy train while on-air apologists see Trump as a shortcut to a few months of fame, such as it is. Others rationalize their support by shrugging that they are simply following their constituents. It’s not surprising to see someone like Bobby Jindal flip-flop on Trump. But it’s sad to see former leaders of the center-right like Chris Christie and Jon Huntsman back what they must know is a kamikaze mission in the name of party loyalty or political self-interest.
This shouldn’t be a jump ball. The Republican Party has nominated someone who appeals to authoritarian impulses, not conservative ideas. If you can’t take a strong stand against someone with a demonstrated record of ignorance, division, and demagoguery, then what’s your deeper purpose for being in politics? Choosing between surrogates Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan really shouldn’t be that tough a call in 2016.
For Hillary Clinton the larger question is how she will respond to the historic opportunity that is Donald Trump.
Some Democratic activists are arguing that Hillary should reach to her left for a VP nominee, offering up an Elizabeth Warren-shaped object to placate the Sandernistas. This is the liberal version of the “choice, not an echo” crowd. The argument makes sense only if you’re thinking about uniting the Democratic Party more than uniting the nation.
Clinton has an opportunity to win a realigning election if she concentrates on building the broadest possible coalition beyond her base, contra Trump.
The phrase “Republicans for Hillary” sounds surreal but expect it to be a rallying cry—however reluctant—in the coming months. Already we’ve seen a surprising number of conservative columnists announce “#I’mWithHer” as a logical extension to #NeverTrump. Conservative humorist PJ O’Rourke became the latest to endorse Hillary in a Daily Beast column.
Noticeably absent from the Hillary camp has been any Republican elected official to date. On the surface this makes sense. Hating Hillary Clinton has been a conservative cottage industry for a quarter-century. But Trump represents a new kind of existential threat for their party and a basic departure from fundamental Republican policies and commitments at home and abroad.
The larger state of play is the two parties have been suffering from market failure over the past two decades as the number of independents has nearly doubled while the party registration has flatlined. It’s not an accident this has happened precisely at a time when the parties have grown more polarized. But crucially, the Democratic Party is still equally balanced between moderates and liberals while the Republican Party is less than one-quarter centrist today and seems hell bent on becoming ever farther right-leaning.
Clinton can lay claim to the center through a VP nominee and conscious cultivation of the political homeless voters in the middle of America. To do that, she needs to consciously court Republicans to support her as an alternative to Trump.
Thanks to Trump’s toxic quality with swing voters as well as key demographics in an increasingly diverse America, Clinton has a unique opportunity to win the reasonable edge of the opposition, and, with their support, a truly realigning election. She can best do this by picking a VP nominee from the center of her party like Tim Kaine or even an experienced independent like Robert Gates.
In the process, she’ll be extending and updating the Clintons’ core political philosophy, which helped her husband become the first Democrat to win re-election since FDR after the party’s nominees had lost more than 40 states in each of the three previous elections.
For the Republican resistance, standing up to Trump is a bet on being able to play a larger role in rebuilding the party in a more responsible and effective direction after November. For some Republicans, it might mean focusing on Senate races, or voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson as a protest, absent the emergence of another credible third-party candidate that Republican Sen. Ben Sasse has been calling for. For other Republicans, it might mean supporting Clinton on the substance of an internationalist foreign policy that has previously united the center right and the center left.
Now is a good time for those invested in America’s future to remember a basic bit of wisdom that most Americans never forget: Vote for the person, not the party.