Rick Holmes: The Republicans’ awkward dance
The meeting last week between presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan was an early step in an awkward dance. The country’s two most powerful Republicans are getting more conciliatory in their public statements, but they are still dancing at arm’s length.
Ryan and Trump met on neutral territory, at the Republican campaign headquarters. There was a joint statement, but not a joint press conference. And there were no pictures with Trump and Ryan in the same frame.
That’s how it is at the Republicans’ prom. The new king has his court — Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Sarah Palin and a few more — but most of the other guests are keeping their distance.
Some are meeting in the hallway, plotting how to throw another prom, with a different king.
Some of the most popular members of the class are staying home, at least for now. And some guests are determined not to be photographed with Trump.
High on that list are Republican senators running for re-election, notably Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio. They are dancing around with semantics — Ayotte, for instance, declaring she supports the nominee but won’t “endorse” Trump — because they’re in a bind. They know Trump has high negatives with women, minorities and other voters they need, but they can’t reject him outright without angering the Trump supporters they can’t win without.
They also know that every word they speak can be used against them in their opponents’ campaign ads. If they say anything nice about Trump, it will be repeated, along with Trump’s most inflammatory quotes, in both English and Spanish. Exchange a friendly handshake and a smile with the GOP nominee, and the picture will be used to scare independents.
Ryan will probably come around to some kind of endorsement of Trump, and in Cleveland, where Ryan is to chair the GOP convention, they’ll have to share the stage. But Ryan will dance very carefully with his new partner, because he has an unruly Republican House caucus to lead and his own 2020 presidential prospects to protect.
If Ryan needed a reminder of the danger of alienating the Trump wing, he got it from Sarah Palin, who announced she’ll punish Ryan’s hesitation by endorsing his challenger in the Republican primary in his Wisconsin House district.
Republicans whose names aren’t on the ballot in November find it easier to keep their distance from Trump. The list of prominent Republicans withholding or refusing support is unprecedented: George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — the only living Republican ex-presidents; Mitt Romney, the party’s last nominee; former candidates Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham; senators like Ben Sasse of Nebraska; governors like Charlie Baker of Massachusetts; funders like Charles Koch; media figures like Glenn Beck; institutions like The National Review and the Weekly Standard.
If Trump was really the great leader and skilled deal-maker he says he is, this wouldn’t be happening. He would have kept lines open to these people even as he denounced them at rallies. In the critical weeks he has to unify the party behind him, he would be calming their fears about his temperament, proving he can act presidential, showing he can be a gracious winner.
But Trump doesn’t follow the rulebook.
The press release Trump issued in response to Graham’s refusal to support him was especially ungracious. He gloated about how “I single-handedly destroyed his hapless run for President.” He called Graham, a widely-respected Republican senator, “an embarrassment” to his home state.
It’s one thing to sound like a narcissistic boor when ad-libbing a response to a reporter’s question. Trump is so oblivious to how he comes across that he had an aide type up his narcissistic, boorish response and put it under his letterhead.
You can see why many of the Republican prom-goers want to hide in the bathroom when it’s time to kiss the prom king’s ring. They want to stand by the new leader of their party and stand with the GOP voters who gave him the crown. They’d like to think Trump is ready to act presidential, but Trump revels in being unpredictable.
Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and the leader of the gang in the hallway searching for a third party alternative, warns “those who’ve been hoping he’s not quite as irresponsible and reckless as he’s seemed to be” that their hopes are in vain. “Meet the new Trump — same as the old Trump.”
The Republicans’ awkward dance has just begun. Like most pundits burned by their predictions this campaign year, I’m trying to avoid guessing how it will all turn out, but I’m pretty sure some toes will be stepped on.
— Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like Rick on Facebook at Holmes & Co, and follow him @HolmesAndCo.