The morning after, the nation awakes asking: What have we done?
Both parties seem intent on throwing the election away. The Democrats, running against a man with highest-ever negatives, are poised to nominate a candidate with the second-highest-ever negatives. Hillary Clinton started with every possible advantage – money, experience, name recognition, residual goodwill from her husband’s successful 1990s – yet could not put away until this week an obscure, fringy, socialist backbencher in a country uniquely allergic to socialism.
Bernie Sanders did have one advantage. He had something to say. She had nuthin’. Her Tuesday victory speech was a pudding without a theme for a campaign without a cause. After 14 months, she still can’t get past the famous question asked of Ted Kennedy in 1979: Why do you want to be president?
So whom do the Republicans put up? They had 17 candidates. Any of a dozen could have taken down the near-fatally weak Clinton, unloved, untrusted, living under the shadow of an FBI investigation.
Instead, they nominate Donald Trump – conspiracy theorist (from Barack Obama’s Kenyan birth to Ted Cruz’s father’s involvement with Lee Harvey Oswald), fabulist (from his own invented opposition to the Iraq War and the Libya intervention to the “thousands and thousands” of New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11), admirer of strongmen (from Vladimir Putin to the butchers of Tiananmen).
His outrageous provocations have been brilliantly sequenced so that the shock of the new extinguishes the memory of the last. Though perhaps not his most recent – his gratuitous attack on a “Mexican” federal judge (born and bred in Indiana) for inherent bias because of his ethnicity. Textbook racism, averred Speaker Paul Ryan. Even Trump acolyte and possible running mate Newt Gingrich called it inexcusable.
Trump promptly doubled down, expanding the universe of the not-to-be-trusted among us by adding American Muslims to the list of those who might be inherently biased.
Yet Trump is the party’s chosen. He won the primary contest fair and square. The people have spoken. What to do?
First, dare to say that the people aren’t always right. Surely Republicans admit the possibility. Or do they believe the people chose rightly in electing Obama? Twice. Historical examples of other countries choosing even more wrongly are numerous and tragic. The people’s will deserves respect, not necessarily affirmation.
I sympathize with the dilemma of Republican leaders reluctant to affirm. Many are as appalled as I am by Trump, but they don’t have the freedom I do to say, as I have publicly, that I cannot imagine ever voting for him. They have unique party and institutional responsibilities.
For some, that meant endorsing Trump in the belief that they might be able to contain, constrain, guide and perhaps even educate him. To my mind, this thinking has always been hopelessly misbegotten but not necessarily – nor in all cases – venal.
Which brings us to the matter of Paul Ryan, now being excoriated by many conservatives for having said he would vote for Trump.
Yet what was surprising was not Ryan’s ever-so-tepid semi-endorsement, which was always inevitable and unavoidable – can the highest elected GOP official be at war during a general election with the party’s democratically chosen presidential candidate? – but his initial refusal to endorse Trump when, after the Indiana primary, nearly everyone around him was falling mindlessly, some shamelessly, into line.
That was surprising. Which is why Ryan’s refusal to immediately follow suit created such a sensation. It also created, deliberately, the time and space for non-Trumpites to hold the line. Ryan was legitimizing resistance to the new regime, giving it safe harbor in the House, even as resisters were being relentlessly accused of treason for “electing Hillary.”
In the end, Ryan called an armistice. What was he to do? Oppose and resign? And then what? What would remain of conservative leadership in the GOP? And if he created a permanent split in the party, he’d be setting up the GOP’s entire conservative wing as scapegoat if Trump loses in November.
Ryan had no good options. He chose the one he felt was least damaging to the conservative cause to which he has devoted his entire adult life.
I wouldn’t have done it, but I’m not House speaker. He is a practicing politician who has to calculate the consequences of what he does. That deserves at least some understanding.
One day, we shall all have to account for what we did and what we said in this scoundrel year. For now, we each have our conscience to attend to.
The Washington Post Writers Group