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Friday, May 13, 2016

Dilemma of the Republican Establishment

Many Republicans have refused, or at least publicly hesitated, to fall in line behind the presumptive Presidential nominee Donald Trump.   For Republicans especially, this is highly unusual behavior. Republicans know that failure to fall in line behind a nominee only presents a division which would likely hand the White House to the Democrats.

Sure, there remains the concern the Trump is a wild card.  He might end up supporting some liberal positions like raising the minimum wage or raising taxes on the rich.   It is hard to say on any given day what position he might take.  But from a Republican point of view, even that is better than someone who will be consistently liberal.

Republicans have two real concerns about Trump.  One is that he may destroy the Republican brand. Republicans have spent decades establishing that the party stands for certain things such as lower taxes and free trade.  A Trump administration that goes the other direction will make voters question whether the party really still supports such positions.  Trump could contribute negatively to the Republican brand in a second way. Presidents George Bush and his son George W. Bush both had economic recessions under their administrations which were then cleaned up by subsequent Democratic Presidents.  If a third Republican bungles the economy, that will really become a trend in the minds of many voters.  It will reflect negatively on the party going forward.

Second, and more important, is that the Republican leadership still fears that Trump will implode. His predilection for taking outrageous positions or inflaming controversy may turn off voters in the general election.  Republicans further down on the ballot, running for Senate, House, and State offices will be put in an awkward position.  If they have announced support for Trump, they may also suffer at the polls.  They may have to spend too much time explaining why they oppose specific positions or comments from the presidential candidate while still supporting him.

Six years ago, the Republicans in the Senate had a banner year opposing Obama.  As a result, 24 of the 34 Senate seats this year have Republican incumbents, many in swing states that could easily go Democrat.  A massive Trump implosion at the polls could possibly undo all the work Republicans have done establishing a majority in the House and Senate over the last 20 years.

Many think it would be better to reject Trump, separate from him, and try again in four years.  The problem with that, of course, is that Trump represents a large proportion of the Republicans voters, not to mention a great many independents.  Refusal to support Trump could cause those voters not to vote for the Republican candidates further down the ballot.  This poses the same danger to Republican majorities in Congress.

Elected leaders who are also responsible for electing more Republicans to Congress, like Paul Ryan, still have not figured out a good answer to this problem.  Do they back Trump and be prepared to explain where they differ on issues or specific comments? or do they separate themselves from Trump from the very beginning and simply take the position that they do not like either major party candidate?

Retired leaders like the Bushes seem to be taking the latter approach.  But active leaders like Ryan will probably end up in the former camp.  In the end, Republicans must support their nominee or look incredibly weak and divided, and also alienating a large portion of Republican voters.  It remains a difficult year.  Most just want to get through it and look forward to future contests.

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