When pundits have complained in recent months about the Republican Party’s reluctance to stop Donald Trump, GOP officials and lawmakers have responded with a reasonable question, “What, exactly, do you expect us to do?”
It’s not an unreasonable response. Republican voters vote for whomever they please, through a party process established months in advance, which cannot be adjusted in response to a frontrunner the party elites consider ridiculous.
But one option that has been available to GOP officials has been the possible declaration that they would not, under any circumstances, support their own party’s nominee in the event of a Trump victory. Not only has that been a step too far for Republicans, but they’ve largely done the exact opposite: GOP senators and governors who’ve endorsed other candidates have nevertheless conceded that if Trump is the Republican nominee, he’ll have their support.
Last night, however, that changed. The Washington Post reported:
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a freshman in office barely one year, took to social media Sunday night to declare that he would not support Donald Trump if he sews up the Republican presidential nomination and formally called for an independent challenge from the right as a conservative option to the real estate billionaire.“I sincerely hope we select one of the other GOP candidates, but if Donald Trump ends up as the GOP nominee, conservatives will need to find a third option,” Sasse wrote in a roughly 1,600-word missive posted on Facebook, much of which he also threw into a series of tweets to his followers.
We don’t yet know the extent of Sasse’s commitment, but the Nebraska Republican, who has not formally endorsed anyone else, left himself little wiggle room, insisting he “cannot support” Trump.
Now, maybe Sasse will change his mind (making these declarations in February is vastly easier than it is in the fall). Maybe it’s a moot point because Trump will come up short in the primaries. Or maybe Sasse will be the only Republican on Capitol Hill taking this position, and by the fall, his posture will be an isolated, and largely overlooked incident.
But if we’re approaching the point at which statewide elected Republican officials vow to oppose their own party’s presidential nominee, the GOP is facing a crack-up that may be quite unpleasant.
A separate Washington Post report added that the party has “become consumed by a crisis over its identity and core values that is almost certain to last through the July party convention, if not the rest of the year.”
The New York Times, meanwhile, reported over the weekend on the “frantic” and “desperate” behind-the-scenes Republican efforts to salvage the party’s 2016 presidential plans, which have thus far produced no results.
At least two campaigns have drafted plans to overtake Mr. Trump in a brokered convention, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has laid out a plan that would have lawmakers break with Mr. Trump explicitly in a general election.Despite all the forces arrayed against Mr. Trump, the interviews show, the party has been gripped by a nearly incapacitating leadership vacuum and a paralytic sense of indecision and despair, as he has won smashing victories in South Carolina and Nevada. Donors have dreaded the consequences of clashing with Mr. Trump directly. Elected officials have balked at attacking him out of concern that they might unintentionally fuel his populist revolt. And Republicans have lacked someone from outside the presidential race who could help set the terms of debate from afar.
The details are amazing in their own right, but let’s not overlook the forest for the trees: Republican Party insiders are actively looking for ways to derail their own party’s presidential frontrunner – a dynamic we have not seen in the modern era – and they appear to be failing rather spectacularly.
Depending on tomorrow’s Super Tuesday results, this may very well get worse for the GOP before it gets better.