Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and the Choice Before Republicans

logoBy David Kochel

It’s not clear who or what will save the GOP from itself, but Republicans who care about salvaging this election for our congressional majorities have choices to make about the principles that bind or divide us.

 

Are we the party of limited government? Our presidential nominee has profited massively from tax giveaways that taxpayers paid for, and his plan adds millions to the debt without fixing the problem. Are we the party of government reform? Our nominee has said repeatedly that he won’t support changes to Social Security and Medicare, despite the looming crisis of solvency in those programs. Are we the party of American strength and calm in the world? Our nominee fundamentally misunderstands our international commitments to our allies while cheering on an increasingly aggressive and expansive Russian foreign policy.

It is extremely hard, as a Republican, to look past all that has roiled the GOP. In just the past week we’ve seen the 2005 tape of Donald Trump speaking about groping and kissing women without their consent, a wave of Republican officials withdrawing support from the party’s presidential nominee, the roller-coaster polls mostly headed down for the GOP, Mr. Trump’s media appearance with women who have accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual misbehavior, Mr. Trump’s aggressive debate performance, the Trump Twitter and follow-up attacks on House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain, and now multiple women accusing Mr. Trump of touching them without their consent. I have written about the likely outcome of the presidential nominee spending extended periods off-message. But since Mr. Trump has declared himself free of the “shackles” of the GOP, there are bigger issues for Republicans who care about the party than these individual (though significant) controversies:

What is the Republican Party? Who should lead it? And in what direction should it head?

Divisions within the GOP were clear before this election cycle. But the Trump campaign led by Stephen Bannon has declared war on the GOP establishment.

Many Trump supporters are fine with this. They excuse revelations of income tax avoidance, look past “locker room” language, and cheer unbridled attacks on Hillary Clinton with chants of “lock her up.” They direct much of their vitriol toward the Republican Party, as Mr. Trump is doing. The Trump campaign’s Virginia director protested Monday outside the Republican National Committee offices in Washington. The striking thing is not that he was fired (though he was) but that the person overseeing Republican presidential campaign efforts in a key battleground state decided, a month before Election Day, that his time was best spent protesting the RNC.

Republicans who initially supported other candidates watched Mr. Trump’s rise through the primaries, and many concluded that the presidential election is bigger than one man and that the will of the voters should be observed. Mr. Trump’s tweets and other attacks on Republican leaders indicate, however, that he’s decided to try to force voters to choose between him and those Republicans who have distanced themselves. This erratic campaign is merely more evidence that Donald Trump is in this for Donald Trump.

The last time the GOP nominated someone who wasn’t identified with the party was 1952. Dwight Eisenhower had saved the world from fascism and freed Europe en route to winning World War II. He may not have been the most conservative president, but he proved that he had this country’s best interests at heart. He also had a public image of leadership, competence, and honor.

Now that it has become possible that the GOP may lose its majorities in the House and the Senate in November along with losing the White House, Republicans concerned with salvaging this election at minimum for those congressional majorities have choices to make about the principles that bind or divide us. A vote for Hillary Clinton is a bridge too far for most Republicans. That’s understandable. But a party that can defeat Hillary Clinton and her agenda in 2016, 2017, and beyond must advance a competing agenda that brings voters toward its cause, not just animates anger and frustration.

David Kochel was chief strategist to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and was an adviser to Mitt Romney‘s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. He is a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. He is on Twitter: @DDKochel.

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