Whatever his impact may be on the country or the world, Donald Trump’s presidency imperils the future of his party, and there isn’t a serious-minded Republican in Washington who would tell you otherwise, privately.
In the short term, Trump’s determination to upend the health care market, his vague tax plan that’s already unpopular, an approval rating that can’t crack 40 percent, his exhausting and inexhaustible penchant for conflict — all of it threatens to make a massacre of the midterm elections, if you go by any historical marker.
In the longer term, it’s plausible to think that Trump’s public ambivalence toward white supremacists, along with his contempt for immigrants and internationalism, could end up rebranding Republicans, for generations, as the party of the past.
Trump doesn’t care what happens to Republicans after he’s gone. The party was always like an Uber to him — a way to get from point A to point B without having to find some other route or expend any cash.
Which leads to the question I hear all the time these days. Why aren’t more Republicans separating themselves from Trump? And why aren’t they doing more with the power they have to get in his way?
Sure, you have a senator like Bob Corker, a party pillar and notorious straight shooter, who publicly worried that an unrestrained Trump might bumble his way into World War III. That should have been sobering.
But barely a week later, here’s Mitch McConnell, the majority leader whom Trump has repeatedly demeaned, standing in the Rose Garden, smiling thinly and making hollow sounds about unity, allowing himself to be used for another weird Trump selfie.
It’s actually not hard to understand why McConnell and his fellow lawmakers don’t stand up and declare independence from this rancid mess of a presidency.
It’s just increasingly hard to justify.
I don’t read a ton of opinion pieces online, unless they happen to concern the Yankees, but there was one on CNN.com last weekend that caught my attention. It was written by Steve Israel, who until this year was a senior Democrat in Congress, serving Long Island.
Responding to Corker’s sudden eruption of candor, Israel explained that retiring politicians like Corker, who has announced this will be his last term in the Senate, have the luxury of dispensing with political calculation.
“Many of us who’ve left elective life feel a sense of liberation, as if our tongues are no longer strapped to the left or right side of our mouths,” Israel wrote, with admirable flair.
“It’s wonderful to speak your mind without worrying about the next campaign, or parsing every word knowing that some opponent could twist an errant phrase against you out of context.”
We get it. It isn’t news that politicians have to be, you know, political. Or at least politicians not named Trump.
And these days, as I’ve noted many times, the real fear for most elected officials in Washington isn’t that they may say something to offend persuadable voters, whose existence no one really believes in anymore, like Bigfoot or Bill O’Reilly.
No, the fear now, if you’re sitting on either end of the Capitol, is that some no-name activist will decide to primary you, because you’ve somehow run afoul of extremists with followings on Twitter and Facebook, and you’ll have to spend all your time and money holding onto a job that you might very well lose, since it takes only one fringe group or millionaire and a few thousand angry voters to tip the balance in your average congressional primary.
The fact that Israel is the one writing about this dilemma should tell you that this isn’t simply a Republican phenomenon. Yes, Republicans are more tightly wedged between conscience and job security right now, because the president is constantly putting both in jeopardy.
But Democrats, too, often find themselves pinned between reason and reflexive ideology, mouthing mantras of economic populism that aren’t all that different from what Trump believes, and that most of them know to be painfully simplistic. Serving in Congress now, on either side of the aisle, often means hearing from a tiny slice of loud activists first, and everyone else where you can fit them in.
Our primary system wasn’t designed for an age when social media could supplant institutional loyalties, and at the moment it’s skewing the entire political process. So Israel offers a pretty fair explanation for why his former colleagues remain so maddeningly reticent.
To which I would offer a succinct reply: Grow up and get some perspective.
Just as a reminder, we don’t send representatives to Washington so they can stay there as long as they want. No voter has ever said the words: “I’m so glad we elected this guy. I just hope he can hold the seat for the next 20 years.”
This isn’t 1960. None of the rest of us expect to have just one job, or one career, that we can hold onto forever. According to my friends at Pew Research, more than half of Americans expect they will need additional education throughout their careers to adapt to changing industries.
And most of us have no idea what’s going to happen if we suddenly lose our jobs. Not so for any member of Congress, who can count on landing some half-time gig that pays more in a year or two than most Americans will see in a decade.
Seriously, what’s the worst that could happen? You’ll lose a primary and have to choose among law firms and cable networks, or at least until the next open seat comes along? How many of your constituents would consider that a tragic fate?
For as much time as I have spent around politicians, and I have been writing about national politics for a good 20 years now, this is the one mystery I have never come close to solving. I will never understand what it is about the job — congressman, senator, city alderman — that makes so many politicians willing to sacrifice all self-respect just to keep doing it.
It seems to me that if we lived in a world where we weren’t quite so jaded about our politics, and quite so self-absorbed in public service, it would be remarkable to say out loud what Israel feels liberated to say. It would not be OK to admit that for years you were timid and calculated, for fear of the consequences, and that’s just how it is.
You have to applaud guys like Corker and fellow senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, all of whom make their concession to political reality here and there, but who manage at the same time to be true to themselves.
And you’d have to say to other Republicans that while fear of retribution may explain what you’re up to, it doesn’t excuse the conspicuous silence. You should stand up and level with your constituents, if only because America needs a strong and thoughtful conservative party, and the longer you abet Trump’s madness, the more decimated that party is going to be.
You were sent here to do the job, not to keep it.
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