Republicans Keep Falling on Their Swords
Lost amid all the news chaos of the past week was a remarkable statement by John Danforth, an admired former Republican senator, calling on his party to separate from Donald Trump.
"We Republicans must disassociate ourselves from Trump by expressing our opposition to his divisive tactics and by clearly and strongly insisting that he does not represent what it means to be a Republican," he declared in a column, calling Trump "the most divisive person in national politics since George Wallace." Danforth, a three-term mainstream GOP lawmaker from Missouri, is also an Episcopalian priest who officiated at Ronald Reagan's funeral.
For the oft-asked question, When will Republicans stand up to this disconnected president?, he has laid down the marker, and scores of congressional Republicans privately empathize with him.
Yet, except for a few like Arizona senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, they are unwilling to break with Trump other than by offering selective criticism, often with the false hope he'll change. This comes from a mixture of fear, given Trump's support with the narrowing base, and calculation that some of the conservative agenda may be enacted.
The danger to the Republican Party, as forcefully noted by Danforth, is not ideological. It's the president's politics of anger, hate and exclusion that poses long-term peril.
To appreciate why most Republicans are still unwilling to challenge Trump -- despite their distaste for him and suspicion that the Russian probe is for real -- consider these blocs:
The Bush network: Both former Presidents Bush have been appropriately quiet, though there are reports of their disdain. But how about the rest of their teams?
Start with Dick Cheney. A staunch conservative, he charges that the Russians may have committed "an act of war" by interfering in the 2016 election, even as the president tries to suppress evidence that they did. The former vice president also declared that a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. "goes against everything we stand for" and that Trump's inaugural address "was not a speech I would have given." And in contrast to Trump, there has never been a whiff of racial prejudice with Cheney.
What he really cares about is national security. As someone at the highest levels of three administrations, Dick Cheney must stay awake at night worrying how Trump will respond to the first genuine crisis, which is inevitable. But breaking with the president would alienate some movement conservatives.
It'd be nice, too, if former Secretaries of State Jim Baker and Condoleezza Rice abandoned their customary caution. Don't hold your breath.
Former officeholders: Republicans who no longer face electoral risk should be joining Danforth. I would have expected to hear more from Judd Gregg, a high-caliber former New Hampshire senator and governor, for example.
Sorry. Gregg has expressed worries about Trump's tweets and whether the president would make the transition to governing (in order to enact tax cuts for the wealthy). But the former senator has also accused the mainstream media of being unfair to Trump, praised his "uniquely strong cabinet," and said the president has a penchant to grow. All nonsense.
The religious right: A few evangelicals have deserted the president, but most of the politically connected are clinging to their access. Trump's favorite venue after his country clubs may be Liberty University, whose leader, Jerry Falwell Jr., defended Trump's failure to single out white nationalists after Charlottesville, claiming the president had "inside information."
But even Falwell is outdone by longtime Christian right operative Ralph Reed, a charming rascal and strong Trumpite. In answering a query, Reed recited his own record of supporting civil rights and minorities, and tried to play down Trump's Charlottesville comments by saying they were made in the heat of a back and forth with the press. Reed claims Trump has consistently condemned bigotry and supported equal rights, and campaigned in more black churches than any Republican presidential candidate other than George W. Bush and "perhaps Jack Kemp."
The truth: Trump's first failure to distinguish between white nationalist racists and other protesters was in his own statement, no questions asked, not at an emotionally charged exchange with the press. Rather than acting as a racial healer, Trump sowed discord in New York City in his real-estate career; led the birther movement, claiming falsely that Barack Obama wasn't born in this country; called an American judge unfit because his parents were born in Mexico, and leveled many slurs against Muslims. Trump campaigned for the first time in a black church in September 2016, and then at two other contrived events. At one of them, the pastor chastised his comments as inappropriate. By contrast, Jack Kemp, in his campaigns in 1988 or 1996, might go to black churches three times in a week.
Congressional leaders: I've largely given House Speaker Paul Ryan a pass for only selectively criticizing Trump outrages; he leads a Republican caucus, and he genuinely wants to enact a conservative agenda, especially major tax cuts.
That rationale is dead. Arguably, if Ryan pushed a tax-reform measure like the one Republicans succeeded in enacting in 1986, it would be a legacy achievement. But the best the speaker can get is something like the 2001 tax cut, which may do more harm than good. Who was the speaker 16 years ago?
Ryan's position was captured by his longtime friend, Wisconsin talk-show host Charlie Sykes, who laments the speaker's "Faustian bargain." In a description that could apply to other Republicans as well, Sykes said: "I keep thinking about that scene from 'A Man for All Seasons,' where Thomas More says, ‘What profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his soul, but for Wales?' And I keep thinking, 'But for tax cuts, Paul?'"
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org