Repub­li­cans need to ad­mit bet on Trump was dis­as­ter

The Palm Beach Post - - OPINION: THE DEBATE STARTS HERE - Michael Ger­son

House Speaker

Paul Ryan promised Oba­macare re­peal, fund­ing for the wall and tax re­form, all by the end of Au­gust. For the GOP, it is now Septem­ber, both lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally.

In the spring of their hopes, Repub­li­can lead­ers placed a bet — which seemed rea­son­able at the time — that they could con­tain Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and pass leg­is­la­tion de­spite him.

The wa­ger was large and lost. The at­tempt to re­vive a health care al­ter­na­tive seems half­hearted and doomed by the same ide­o­log­i­cal dy­nam­ics that killed it the first time. Repub­li­can en­thu­si­asm for the wall is lim­ited by the fact that it is among the most waste­ful, im­prac­ti­cal and use­less ideas ever spouted. And tax re­form has been tabled in fa­vor of a few tax cuts that are likely to reaf­firm pub­lic im­pres­sions that the “P” in GOP stands for plu­toc­racy.

In the process, Repub­li­can lead­ers have been made to look hap­less and pa­thetic, not least be­cause Trump has taken to taunt­ing them. A pres­i­dent in­ca­pable of leg­isla­tive lead­er­ship mocks the in­ef­fec­tive­ness of leg­is­la­tors, pub­licly hu­mil­i­ates, then rev­els in the (very tem­po­rary) friend­ship of “Chuck and Nancy” — Demo­cratic lead­ers Schumer and Pelosi.

The pres­i­dent has no dis­cernible po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy or strong pol­icy views to be­tray. He has a ge­nius for fame. Trump reads events moment by moment, mak­ing him a cork on the waves of ca­ble cov­er­age. Any choice he makes is cor­rect by def­i­ni­tion, be­cause he has made it. And any per­son who does not mimic his po­lit­i­cal gy­ra­tions is dis­loyal and should be pun­ished.

Most pub­lic of­fi­cials have never worked with any­one like this be­fore. Among other things, it means that any vo­cal con­vic­tion politi­cian — such as Sen. John McCain, who reg­u­larly heeds the whis­per of con­science — will be Trump’s en­emy.

What have Repub­li­can lead­ers who bet the other way — on ac­com­mo­da­tion — lost in the process?

The wa­ger has been a dis­as­ter in the realm of pol­icy. Dur­ing leg­isla­tive de­bates on is­sues such as health care, Trump has been er­ratic, un­fo­cused, im­pa­tient and fright­en­ingly ig­no­rant.

The wa­ger has been a dis­as­ter in the realm of pol­i­tics. The pres­i­dent takes it as an ac­com­plish­ment to se­cure the sup­port of about 35 per­cent of the pub­lic. This leaves Repub­li­cans in the worst of po­lit­i­cal worlds, where the in­ten­sity of Trump’s base is in­creased by words and poli­cies that alien­ate the ma­jor­ity — mak­ing Trump a pow­er­ful force within the party and a scary, gal­va­niz­ing fig­ure be­yond it. The dam­age is broad, pro­found and gen­er­a­tional. A re­cent Wall Street Jour­nal/NBC News poll recorded 26 per­cent ap­proval for the pres­i­dent among those aged 18 to 34.

The wa­ger has been a moral dis­as­ter. News ac­counts fol­low­ing Trump’s be­trayal of Repub­li­can lead­ers on the debt limit re­ported them to be “livid.” What does it tell us about Repub­li­can politi­cians that they were livid about a three-month debt limit ex­ten­sion but not so much about misog­yny, na­tivism and flir­ta­tion with racism?

All Repub­li­can ef­forts — at least in the tra­di­tional wing of the party — must now be bent to­ward one, dif­fi­cult end: Es­tab­lish­ing a GOP iden­tity apart from Trump. And that will re­quire Repub­li­can lead­ers to cease be­ing com­plicit in their own hu­mil­i­a­tion and ir­rel­e­vance.

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