One of the great privileges of being in Congress is the relative anonymity, the anonymity of numbers. That may sound counter-intuitive or even nonsensical; but it’s true. Very few pieces of legislation are sufficiently politicized to focus a spotlight individually on the hundreds of members of the House of Representatives. It’s scarcely less true of the Senate. Even when issues or bills do gin up sufficient attention members can usually skate by with bromides about considering all the relevant issues or giving this important issue careful consideration and other such can-kicking nonsense. Then there are all the parliamentary complexities that help further muddy the picture. Without any way to get a clear sense of where people stand and which votes count, politicians can do what they do best, which is to keep their options open as long as possible and hope that hard decisions never have to be made at all. The key is that there’s safety in the herd. As long as there’s some diffuse, collective decision-making and no real way to pin particular people down, everybody is safe.
The dynamics are most clear in those rare cases where they cease to function. President Bush’s push to privatize Social Security in 2005 is a good example. Democrats and Republicans did their best to stand on the sidelines until the safe position became clear. They wanted to see whether President Bush would be able to galvanize support for his plan. But the public became so engaged by the issue that House Republicans especially proved unable to withstand the pressure to clearly state their opinion one way or another. The issue was too central, too stark, to relevant to everyone. Not having an opinion just didn’t pass the laugh test. A handful of members from marginal districts got broken off from the herd. Once they came out in opposition, the whole effort crumbled rapidly.
Donald Trump’s position at the top of the ticket isn’t a legislative issue. But there are similar dynamics at play.
As I noted over the weekend, most Republican elected officials clearly want to sit out the presidential election. They’re not rocking the boat so much as to oppose Trump. But they’re pushing nonsense about “supporting the party’s nominee” without saying the nominee’s name or claiming that they still need to hear more from Trump – this the most quoted and media saturated presidential candidate in history. As Lauren Fox reports this evening, less than a week after Trump secured the nomination and with six months more to go, Republican Senators are already losing their patience answering questions about Donald Trump.
To that I think the only real answer is, good luck. This is the flip side of Trump’s total domination of campaign coverage. Everybody has an opinion about Donald Trump. Everybody’s got an opinion – most of them quite strong. He creates new headlines and controversies every day. That’s why he generates so much media coverage after all. He is now the leader of the Republican party. If you’re a member of the Republican party, get used to getting questions everyday.
At the moment, Republican elected officials are basically the only people in the United States who don’t have a strong opinion about whether or not Donald Trump should be president. And that’s a big, glaring problem. Because that just won’t make sense to anybody, not his supporters or detractors. I’m not sure it’s right to say that it’s better to just oppose him or endorse. These are both terrible options. But these various permutations of ‘no comment’ or ‘ask somebody else’ are almost as bad because they make the person saying it sound silly and ridiculous, which is really the worst thing that can happen to you in politics. Someone who can’t answer a straight question – especially when it’s a pivotal question – looks silly, stupid and most of all weak – all terrible things in a tough campaign. The whole “I support the nominee” gobbledegook will wilt rapidly under the full glare of attention that Trump brings to really everything everyday.