The sur­vival of the wit­less

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son Columnist

They wan­der the halls of pub­lic build­ings and haunt re­cep­tions like the ghosts of the GOP past — the co­hort of Repub­li­can sen­a­tors and House mem­bers who will be leav­ing of­fice with the ar­rival of the new Congress. Some chose re­tire­ment be­cause they did not want to do what is nec­es­sary to keep of­fice in Don­ald Trump’s party. Oth­ers were forcibly re­tired by the Demo­cratic midterm wave.

The class of de­part­ing Repub­li­cans in­cludes a few who won’t be missed.

But many of the House losses came in sub­ur­ban dis­tricts that re­quired outreach be­yond the Trump-in­tox­i­cated base. Na­tion­ally, Democrats won about 70 per­cent of votes in sub­ur­ban House dis­tricts.

This means the grim po­lit­i­cal reaper came for some of the most rea­son­able el­e­ments of the party. This process is the re­verse of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion — call it the sur­vival of the wit­less.

Un­der typ­i­cal cir­cum­stances, de­part­ing Repub­li­can of­fice­hold­ers would be ob­vi­ous re­cruits for ad­min­is­tra­tion jobs. Is there any doubt that re­tir­ing Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., would have been a prime can­di­date for sec­re­tary of state in a more nor­mal GOP ad­min­is­tra­tion? Oth­ers would be nat­u­ral fits for the lesser Cab­i­net jobs. But as Trump’s party pu­ri­fies it­self, true tal­ent be­comes a waste prod­uct.

In an in­com­plete, un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive sur­vey, con­ducted at think tank events and in buf­fet lines, de­part­ing mem­bers have told me a few things.

They uni­formly won­der why a pres­i­dent pre­sid­ing over a 4 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment rate made im­mi­gra­tion — ac­tu­ally, brown peo­ple in­vad­ing the coun­try who needed to be stopped by a de­ploy­ment of the U.S. mil­i­tary — the sub­stance of his midterm ap­peal.

De­part­ing GOP mem­bers also won­der why Trump na­tion­al­ized a midterm elec­tion that could have been bet­ter fought on lo­cal is­sues and con­di­tions.

More than two-thirds of Amer­i­cans cast their midterm votes to send a mes­sage about the pres­i­dent, ei­ther pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive — a re­cent record. It was once said of Teddy Roo­sevelt that he wanted to be “the bride at ev­ery wed­ding.” Trump seems com­pelled to be bride, groom, minister, wed­ding singer and drunken guy giv­ing the off-color cham­pagne toast.

And de­part­ing mem­bers re­port that the most ac­tive Repub­li­can par­ti­sans in their state be­lieve that there is noth­ing — ab­so­lutely noth­ing — wrong with a po­lit­i­cal party that lost 40 House seats in a time of rel­a­tive peace and un­prece­dented pros­per­ity. If any­thing, one soon-to-be-for­mer mem­ber told me, the Repub­li­can base be­lieves its party lost ground be­cause it wasn’t true enough to Trump’s agenda.

So where does this leave Amer­i­can pol­i­tics headed into the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion? Trump’s party — pre­dom­i­nantly based in ru­ral, small-town and smaller city Amer­ica, and dis­pro­por­tion­ately older, male, less ed­u­cated and white — is gen­uinely en­thu­si­as­tic about its dis­rup­tive leader. Ur­ban and (in­creas­ingly) sub­ur­ban Amer­i­cans — dis­pro­por­tion­ately younger, fe­male, more ed­u­cated and mul­ti­cul­tural — are fi­nally get­ting the pic­ture that they are Trump­ism’s foils.

This leaves a few of us en­tirely home­less in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. If you had asked me 10 years ago, when I left gov­ern­ment, if the Repub­li­can Party could be won and ral­lied with Ge­orge Wal­lace’s cam­paign themes, I would have thought you ridicu­lous. Now it is my naivete that de­serves ridicule.

Trump is a politi­cian fa­mous for fol­low­ing his “gut” to some odd and sketchy places. But the po­lit­i­cal ques­tion of the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is quite prac­ti­cal: Can Trump keep Michi­gan, Wis­con­sin or Penn­syl­va­nia (he doesn’t need them all) while avoid­ing any de­fec­tions in Sun­belt states such as Ari­zona?

The an­swer: With a flawed enough Demo­cratic can­di­date, yes he can. If Demo­cratic pri­mary vot­ers view Trump’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity as an op­por­tu­nity to get all the ide­o­log­i­cal good­ies they’ve ever wanted, rather than a rare chance to ex­pand their coali­tion to mod­er­ate vot­ers, they would again op­pose a weak can­di­date with a weaker one.

And they would re-elect the least fit pres­i­dent in Amer­i­can his­tory.

Given the so­cial and de­mo­graphic trends of the coun­try, it will soon be im­pos­si­ble to win a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion with an ethno-na­tion­al­ist ap­peal. But we aren’t there yet.

Mean­while, Trump com­mits po­lit­i­cal vam­pirism — suck­ing the last re­main­ing life from a dy­ing coali­tion.

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