by Gary J. Schmitt
The case for principled partisanship.
This article will be published in the January 11 issue of The Weekly Standard.
Within weeks of announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in June, Donald Trump seized the lead in virtually every national poll of GOP voters and has held that lead ever since. The Real Clear Politics average has Trump polling at 35.6 percent, with a 17-point spread between Trump and his nearest competitor.
Although there is no poll of GOP officials, it is pretty clear from news accounts and political reporting that elected Republicans and party officials do not favor a Trump nomination. Far from it. To judge by attributed and unattributed quotes from those stories, it would be surprising if more than 5 percent of those GOP regulars favor Trump.
No doubt GOP officials’ disconnect from general polls relates to their view that his nomination would likely result in the Democrats holding onto the White House. Hillary Clinton regularly outpoints Trump, and even Bernie Sanders — the most left-wing Democratic candidate in recent decades — outpolls Trump according to the most recent Quinnipiac survey. According to the same poll, half of America would be “embarrassed” to see Trump sitting in the Oval Office. For the party pros, it’s difficult to see how a nominee with such high negatives can win in November.
And a losing presidential candidate, especially if the margin is significant, can only hurt Republicans running for the Senate and House in November. It will be rough sledding regardless for the Senate GOP, with Republicans trying to hold onto a slim majority while defending 24 seats compared with the Democrats’ 10. As for the House, the deputy chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Steve Stivers, put the matter more starkly: A Trump nomination would be “devastating.”
Putting aside Trump’s particular views on policy matters, it is a rather remarkable thing that a political party has so little say over who its nominee is. Presumably, political parties should not have to follow their putative leader, lemming-like, off the proverbial cliff.
Of course, losing for the sake of a principled position is not unheard of and, in fact, may rejuvenate a party for the long term. There are those who argue that Barry Goldwater’s loss to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 set the stage for a more successful and coherent Republican party in the decades that followed.
But is Trump another Goldwater? Hardly. Trump’s policy positions are substantively an inch deep and bombastically a mile wide. In times past, his flippant comments, vulgar attacks on opponents, and appeals to the public’s anger and fears would have been characterized as demagogic.
None of this should surprise. Trump has bounced around with his party identification. Sometimes he has registered as a Republican, other times as a Democrat, and still other times as nonaligned or aligned with the Independence party. Trump himself admits he’s been more than willing to give support and money to whomever might help him and his various enterprises.
There is nothing unprecedented about such behavior; it might even be smart business. But, again, there is nothing here to suggest a candidate committed to a principled party platform.
At some level, candidates should reflect the party’s principles. Or, at least, that was the original intent for creating modern political parties. Otherwise, voting would be a matter of choosing this or that personality on a ballot who might or might not be anchored to some broader substantive program. And it is precisely those substantive ties to a party and its platform that give the voting public their best sense of what policies a candidate might actually follow while in office. Voting for president shouldn’t be a game of Russian roulette.
Obviously, a party needs to test whether a candidate has popular appeal. Nobody, in this day and age, would argue for a system in which candidates are picked in the backrooms by political insiders cutting deals with each other. But today’s system is so wide open that the party as party has little to no say over who might run, how the field is narrowed, and, ultimately, who the candidate will be.
As Edmund Burke, the founding father of the modern idea of party politics, understood, partisanship in government is inevitable. Without principled parties, however, men were bound to take advantage of that partisanship by appealing to the fears and hopes of citizens and doing so without offering up policies that might provide sound and stable government.
Perhaps the current system for choosing presidential candidates is here to stay; it is difficult to see a path to something different. But the Trump phenomenon is a reminder that a presidential nominating system that is so open, so independent of the very entity whose flag the nominee is supposed to carry, is a system that can produce what we see today: a potential nominee whose commitment to the party and its principles is nil to nonexistent.
Gary Schmitt is director of the Program on American Citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute.