Imagine that you are a leader of the Republican Party. That means that you almost certainly opposed Donald Trump, most likely in strident terms, at some point during the last year. You are horrified that he has won the nomination, and you worry that he might destroy the party not just in 2016 but permanently.
What should you do? You cannot defect to the Democrats, for a number of reasons. First, you are a prominent party leader. As much as the Democrats would make hay out of your defection, you know that you have no hope of ever working as an operative in the party against which you have worked for your entire lifetime.
Second, and much more importantly, you are conservative. In fact, you are extremely conservative. You agree with—or, at least, you are willing to go along with—your party’s line on guns, climate change, abortion, immigration, Planned Parenthood, the Iran nuclear deal, the minimum wage, repealing the estate tax, union busting, privatizing education, cutting Social Security and Medicare, and on and on.
Although you have no idea what Trump really thinks about some of those issues, given how often he contradicts himself, you at least know that he would be more likely than Hillary Clinton to support your position on almost all of those issues. So, should you simply say, “Hey, he wasn’t my guy, but he’s better than the alternative”?
Not at all. It is surprising, in fact, that most Republican leaders have not figured out how to make the best of the very bad situation that they now face. Their only path to a viable future is to abandon Trump (who has said that he will go forward even if the party does not unite behind him) and admit—at least to themselves—that the prospect of a Clinton presidency is hardly apocalyptic. In fact, having Clinton in office would be a boon to Republicans.
The End of the Line on Clinton Bashing
The House Republicans’ last gasp at making Hillary Clinton a villain in the Benghazi tragedy has finally ended, with the very predictable result that Clinton was exonerated—again.
Trey Gowdy, the committee chair who mindlessly pursued this dead end, was reduced to playing games with the press, refusing to admit out loud that his committee had come up with nothing. Instead, he told reporters simply to read the 800-page report and draw their own conclusions. It was a sorry end to a sorry chapter in the history of the people’s house.
As I described in a recent column, Republicans have spent the last quarter of a century telling each other scary stories about Hillary Clinton, to the point where they started to believe their own tall tales. But there was never any substance to the attacks on Clinton, and the many pseudo-scandals have amounted to nothing (like Benghazi) or have turned out merely to be mildly embarrassing non-scandals (like Clinton’s silly claim to have come under sniper fire in Bosnia) that were no different from any other politician’s less admirable moments.
Because there was never anything to back up the overheated claims against Hillary Clinton, it has long been obvious that her critics hated her with extra intensity because she was, to be blunt about it, an “uppity” woman. She was an unapologetic feminist and career-oriented woman who thus represented a social change that many Republicans feared and loathed. She was a convenient target for conservatives’ discomfort with modernity.
The blatant sexism behind the attacks on Clinton is hardly a secret. A few months ago, former House Speaker John Boehner made news by referring to Senator Ted Cruz as “Lucifer in the flesh.” But because that tidbit dominated the news cycle, it took attention away from Boehner’s more typical playground taunt about Clinton. As one new article put it: “He also apparently impersonated the former secretary of state, saying, ‘Oh, I’m a woman, vote for me.’”
All of which is to say that Clinton-hating is deeply embedded in the DNA of the Republican Party, including its leaders. Trump risks nothing with them by making similarly sexist comments and belittling her on the campaign trail.
But the fact is that the Republicans not only could easily live with a Clinton presidency, but they could thrive under it.
The Republicans’ Win-By-Losing Strategy
Backing Trump runs a number of serious risks for the Republicans. Notwithstanding individual polls that pop up occasionally, the odds are still overwhelming that Trump will lose badly in November. If that happens, he is very likely to lose the Senate for the Republicans as well. Even if the Republicans’ gerrymandering of the House preserves their majority there, losing the Senate is an outcome that Republican leaders would most certainly not like.
As the recently completed Supreme Court term has reminded Republicans (and everyone else), there is a lot at stake in the next few years as one, two, three, or even four seats on the Court will need to be filled.
If Republicans really want to prevent the damage (from their perspective) that would result from a Democratic Senate majority voting Clinton’s nominees onto the Court, they should do what they can to preserve their control of the Senate. And the best way to do that—especially because so many vulnerable Republicans are running in blue states—is to break definitively with Trump.
The Republicans, who would in this scenario continue to control both the House and the Senate, could also block virtually every other big thing that Clinton could propose during her term. As George Will put it when announcing his departure from the Republican Party last week, Republicans should “grit their teeth” under Clinton and run strongly against her in 2020.
Although I continue to think that this kind of gridlock could lead to a major political catastrophe in the near future, I am trying to imagine how Republicans who hate Clinton might justify abandoning Trump. They could console themselves that she will surely be a one-term president, and they can make that easier to tolerate by admitting to themselves that she is really not such a scary prospect as president.
Patriotism Over Party: The Public-Relations Gains for the Republicans of Abandoning Trump
But there is an even better reason for Republicans to allow Clinton to win this November. They will significantly increase their chances of winning in the future if they are seen as the party that is big enough to put partisanship aside in the best interests of the country.
Put yourself back in the shoes of a Republican leader. You know that Trump is going to say yet another stupid/outrageous thing any day now. You can then say, “You know, I don’t know why I held out hope even for this long that he was not the disaster that he is, but this latest outrage truly broke the camel’s back. The Republican Party can no longer contemplate putting that dangerous man in the White House.”
What would happen next? Surely, a civil war would erupt in your party. But you know that such a political bloodbath will happen soon enough. Even if Trump were somehow to win, much of the Republican establishment has already made it clear that they cannot work with him, and Trump would surely be less than magnanimous in victory. Bygones would most definitely not be bygones.
Because of concerns about Trump’s effect on the Republicans’ image, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he is looking to Trump to pick what amounts to Dick Cheney 2.0 as a running mate. McConnell clearly understands that working with Trump will be a miserable experience, and the Republican leadership needs a backup plan.
Moreover, how great would it be to be a leader of a party that can actually claim to have taken a loss for the good of the country? With very good reasons to worry that Trump could threaten the future of constitutional democracy, you and your fellow Republican leaders could say: “He calls himself a Republican, but we know a would-be tyrant when we see one.” No matter how unpopular Republicans’ policies are otherwise, who would not admire that kind of statesmanship?
What could President Clinton do under those circumstances? The entire political conversation would change from, “Wow, the Republicans are literally willing to do anything to win,” to an outpouring of plaudits for Republicans’ genuine patriotism.
Even if Republicans lost the Senate in November, the positive glow of the party’s sacrifice would guarantee that Clinton would have to go out of her way to avoid accusations of taking advantage. She would be expected to choose Supreme Court nominees who are centrist, or even slightly to the right of someone like Merrick Garland.
It is worth remembering that the Democrats have a strong tendency to rein themselves in. Even when the party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency from 2009-11, they refused even to consider not only single-payer health care but even a “public option” under the Affordable Care Act. They similarly negotiated with themselves to de-fang the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.
And if anyone in the Democratic Party represents the willingness of Democrats to offer olive branches to Republicans—even (or especially) in the face of Republicans’ hatred—it is the center-right bloc personified by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.
Of course, the Republicans can dig in and make things worse. If they do, Hillary Clinton is smart enough to respond to the public’s mood and actually try to push through left-liberal policies. And if the Republicans continue to tolerate Trump and thus hand the government over to the Democrats for the foreseeable future, all the while continuing to vilify Clinton, her strong predisposition to move to the center could be permanently destroyed.
Think about being a Republican leader who could say to Clinton, “Yeah, you’re finally president. Enjoy having to say good things about us for four years!” You would inoculate your party against the (quite accurate) accusations that you have attacked Clinton based on sexist bias, and you would also position your party to be able to appeal to young people and the electorally important minorities who will dominate future elections.
So, the question is what kind of future you want to face, if you are a Republican leader. Do you want to checkmate President Hillary Clinton before she even takes office, forcing her to acknowledge your selfless sacrifice for the country, and probably saving many of your incumbent senators and representatives to boot?
Or do you want to risk putting a dangerous loose cannon in the White House, a man who at best will recast your party into a form that you will not recognize, and at worst could destroy the country that you claim to love? If you can stop convincing yourself that Hillary Clinton is the devil incarnate—a fantasy that you can no longer afford to believe—the answer is obvious.