Paul Ryan told members of his caucus a short time ago in a full caucus conference call that he would no longer defend Donald Trump and focus solely on saving the House Majority. A short time later NBC/WSJ released a poll showing Clinton with a 14 point lead over Trump in a two way race with Trump down at 38% percent support. Even the always cockeyed Rasmussen tracking poll out this morning showed showed Clinton with a 7 point lead, a huge move from Clinton’s 1 point advantage on Friday. Certainly GOP party committees and campaigns have been in the field as well showing a similar electoral earthquake.
But we should note a basic point: Paul Ryan continues to endorse Trump for President. Indeed, when this point was apparently left too-tacit in the conference call, Ryan had to return to the call after signing off to calm angry House GOP backbenchers and reassure them that he was definitely not un-endorsing Trump. The truth is that endorsing but not ‘defending’ was what Ryan’s been doing for months. Indeed, it’s a balance he’s been remarkably successful at pulling off, perhaps not with his dignity intact with this his electoral goals remaining protected. Until now.
Ryan now wants credit for jettisoning Trump without actually doing it.
I would say that the real question of the final month of the 2016 campaign is no longer who will be president (yes, not over till it’s over, but …) but what toll Trump’s rhetorical violence and emotional breakdown will take on the GOP Congress. Mitch McConnell has been curiously silent through this drama. Paul Ryan is now trying, far too late in the game, to steer his ship into port. But the wind is churning, the waves are crashing and ship-ripping boulders are right under the water. He has to cross the boulders to find safety. Those boulders of course are Trump’s impassioned supporters, a minority of the electorate but a majority of Republican voters. The exact debate performance that turned off most swing voters was the fantasy debate for Trumpers. As I noted last night, that’s the performance they’ve been waiting for: an angry and unapologetic series of verbal assaults on Hillary Clinton. It was the primal scream they’ve been waiting for for months, indeed that many from the Republican right have been waiting for for 25 years. They are even more committed to Trump now than they were yesterday afternoon.
This morning, the Post’s Robert Costa – a great reporter and one of the best for access into the innards of the GOP – said this on Twitter: “In calls this morning, many Rs privately want to defect from Trump. But they say the debate gave them pause since he roused their base.” This could be a summary of the entire 2016 campaign. It’s why the GOP establishment wasn’t able to ditch Trump in the primaries or outflank him at the convention or disentangle themselves from him now. It’s simple: they can’t drop him because he owns their voters. Every machination and strategy and clever trick comes to grief against that reality.
I believe we have arrived at the stage where Democrats, if they play their cards right and execute effectively, can break numerous Republican candidates over this basic division in the GOP: force candidates to choose where they stand on Trump. Sticking with him loses critical votes in the center, abandoning him triggers a rebellion on the right. It doesn’t take more than a handful of percentage points on either side to lose an election. Critically, pressing candidates day after day for a decision they simply cannot make will have the effect of making them seem hapless, helpless and ridiculous to many voters wherever they stand on the political spectrum. At deciding time, people want a straight answer. I don’t think voting but not endorsing or endorsing but not defending or any of the other GOP acrobatics will ward off this demand for an answer. The national focus is simply too great on the question before all of us.
Of course, the other side of Trump’s collapse to base is that Republicans can now mobilize a ‘no blank check’ campaign to support Republican candidates. That could work. It probably will work for some voters. But this political moment feels too fierce and kinetic, even primal in its intensity, not to overcome such detached and strategic thinking. We are in uncharted waters for a national campaign. I told a colleague this morning that I had a hard time remembering another time in 16 years of running TPM where I had such difficulty keeping up with so many different, critical threads of news. Not so much with what we’re able to get on the page as what I’m able to keep up with in my own head. I think that’s because so much of what’s happening isn’t just florid and headliney but shatters political norms and conventions. Even during the impeachment drama going on twenty years ago, it was stunning, unprecedented and substantively crazy. But the people involved weren’t crazy. They were doing something awful and nuts. But they were in control of their faculties. That’s far from the case here.
As I’m writing this post, Trump has kicked off his utterly predictable attack on Ryan. Ryan had to head off a member revolt even during the conference call where he refused to take a stand. Now he’s in it with Trump. The intensity is mounting. The momentum is quickening. The GOP is too big to break down. Its inertia is more than enough to bring it to election day. After that some sort of rebuilding may occur or again be delayed. But it’s in the Democrats’ power now to break Republican candidates one by one if they choose and act wisely.