The GOP’s Trumpian mo­ment of truth

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - EJ Dionne Colum­nist E.J. Dionne is syn­di­cated by The Washington Post Writ­ers Group.

What is the Repub­li­can Party?

Sud­denly, this has be­come one of the cen­tral ques­tions of the 2016 cam­paign. It’s not sim­ply a mat­ter of whether the GOP is the party of Don­ald Trump or the party of Paul Ryan. It is also an is­sue of whether Repub­li­can con­gres­sional lead­ers have any con­nec­tion with the seething grass roots whose anger they stoked dur­ing the Obama years but al­ways hoped to con­tain. Trump is the prod­uct of their colos­sal mis­cal­cu­la­tions.

And then there are the ru­mi­na­tions of mil­lions of quiet Repub­li­cans — lo­cal busi­ness­peo­ple and doc­tors and lawyers and coaches and teach­ers. They are look­ing on as the po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tion to which they have long been loyal is re­fash­ioned into a house of bizarre hor­rors so ut­terly dis­tant from their sober, com­mu­nity-minded and, in the truest sense of the word, con­ser­va­tive ap­proach to life.

This elec­tion has been trans­formed. Its tra­jec­tory will now be di­vided be­tween Be­fore the Video (BV) and Af­ter the Video (AV). Hil­lary Clin­ton was al­ways likely to win, but BV, it seemed she would have to scratch out a nor­mal, and per­haps even nar­row, vic­tory. AV, Repub­li­cans all the way down the ticket are run­ning for their lives. Clin­ton has al­ready started to di­vert some of her rhetor­i­cal en­ergy to help­ing Democrats in Sen­ate and House races, and Demo­cratic money sources are mov­ing to try to make Nov. 8 a day of vic­tory at all lev­els.

Tak­ing con­trol of the Sen­ate is well within the Democrats’ reach. Win­ning the 30 seats they need in the House is still a long shot be­cause of par­ti­san ger­ry­man­ders and the con­cen­tra­tion of Demo­cratic votes in big cities. Still, the fact that the pos­si­bil­ity is even be­ing dis­cussed is a sea change, and the suc­cess of many of those ger­ry­man­ders for the GOP de­pended on large sub­ur­ban mar­gins. It is pre­cisely sub­ur­ban vot­ers, Repub­li­can and in­de­pen­dent, who are Trump’s neme­sis.

And for those run­ning on the ticket headed by Trump, there are no good op­tions. Logic would dic­tate aban­don­ing him, and that’s what the party’s can­di­dates did in droves fol­low­ing the video’s re­lease. But Trump has en­gen­dered deep loy­al­ties among core Repub­li­can vot­ers, and dump­ing him car­ries a price — a price that Trump was happy to raise sky high.

“Dis­loyal R’s are far more dif­fi­cult than Crooked Hil­lary,” he tweeted. “They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win — I will teach them!”

His un­load­ing on Ryan af­ter the House speaker said he would no longer de­fend or cam­paign with Trump un­der­scored that there is no mid­dle ground. Ryan did not with­draw his en­dorse­ment, af­ter all. But if you are not wholly with Trump, you are against him.

The flip side of this cal­cu­la­tion is also bad for Repub­li­cans. Demo­cratic polling sug­gests vot­ers see GOP politi­cians who backed Trump and left him only AV as op­por­tunists — which is a fair read­ing of the be­hav­ior of peo­ple who should have known bet­ter. Repub­li­cans who took a prin­ci­pled stand against Trump from the be­gin­ning ought to fare bet­ter, but many of them may get hurt any­way be­cause they rep­re­sent dis­tricts and states where Trump will get swamped.

Trump’s fi­asco, in the mean­time, has eased co­or­di­na­tion prob­lems on the Demo­cratic side. A top Demo­cratic cam­paign of­fi­cial said there had been some ten­sion ear­lier in the year over Clin­ton’s fo­cus on cast­ing Trump as uniquely ill-fit for the pres­i­dency. Down-bal­lot Democrats wor­ried that a nar­row fo­cus on Trump’s de­fi­cien­cies might not be help­ful to the rest of the party.

Now, both Demo­cratic can­di­dates and the Clin­ton camp are united in call­ing out Repub­li­cans who have ei­ther en­dorsed Trump or re­fused to dis­own him. This cre­ates pres­sure for vul­ner­a­ble Repub­li­cans to de­fect, which helps Clin­ton, but also ties the en­tire Repub­li­can ticket to Trump, which helps her party’s Sen­ate and House can­di­dates. There is, said the Demo­cratic of­fi­cial, “no lack of har­mony.”

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