Yesterday, as I began to understand the full scope of the Giuliani scandal, I wrote, “This is the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen in all my years of watching American politics.” Later, on Twitter, I asserted it was “The biggest scandal in American political history. It’s not even close.” I’ll be writing about different facets of this for the duration of the impeachment process, but here I just want to focus a bit on how Republican officeholders can and will react to it.
To create a fuller context, let us remember that the Republicans were already beginning to freak out about public opinion prior to Giuliani’s colleagues being arrested at Dulles International Airport on Wednesday night. So, let’s begin there.
Writing in The Hill, Niall Stanage gathered up three basic perspectives on what bad polls mean for the president. The first comes from a recently defeated House Republican who represented a diverse district in South Florida.
Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who served two terms in Congress before being defeated last November, told The Hill, “Republicans are coming to the realization that this is different than the Mueller probe. This is a lot more radioactive. They are coming to terms with the fact that there is real political risk here for members in swing states and swing districts.”
Mr. Curbelo knows firsthand what it’s like to lose your seat largely because of the behavior and performance of Donald Trump. He knows the members still in office who are most likely to suffer a similar fate due to the impeachment ordeal. He’s telling us that there’s a growing contingent in the House Republican caucus that is no longer certain that avoiding the president’s wrath is the safest path for them.
That gets us to the second perspective, which comes from a persistent Trump critic.
“We often think of our legislative elected officials as leaders. They are not leaders. They are followers,” said Rick Tyler, who served as communications director for a Trump rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), in the 2016 GOP presidential primary. “They will follow their constituents, they will follow their voters.”
I’d put this in the category of wishful thinking. We need look no further than the issue of background checks for gun purchases to realize that there are issues where Republican officeholders are not much influenced by popular opinion among their constituents. Mr. Tyler is correct when he says that legislative elected officials are followers rather than leaders, but their master is rarely the broad public. Within the GOP, they are more inclined to listen to gun manufacturers and oil and gas executives than the results of opinion surveys. Generally speaking, they’re more afraid of a primary challenge than a loss in the general election.
Having said that, they are keenly interested in self-preservation, so they cannot be completely indifferent to what the general election voters say they want. As the polls move against Trump, their calculus will be affected.
How much it will be affected is the real question, and the third perspective is skeptical that there will ever be a significant break with the president.
Others, more supportive of Trump, asserted that such a breaking point is unlikely to ever come.
“Absolutely not,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, arguing that Republicans who abandoned Trump would doom themselves to defeat. “Running from him is a fool’s errand. Everything runs through Trump, so running from him is not a smart idea.”
I think all three of these takes have merit but none of them offer a complete picture. The correct answer is that Republican officeholders are in a bind. They have to make difficult choices, but there is no safe choice. Just by human nature, they are more sensitive to what conservative Republican-supporting voters think than what the public thinks as a whole. We all care more about what our friends and colleagues think of us than the opinions of strangers and adversaries. And you don’t get to run in a general election if you don’t survive the party primary.
Relatedly, while you can doom your general election chances by choices you make to win your primary, you can also doom your primary chances if you try too hard to avoid this. Many will opt to avoid the first potential defeat on the calendar and then hope for the best. This argues for sticking with the president. Yet, defeat is defeat regardless of when it occurs. Simply surviving a primary isn’t the answer to this riddle.
Moreover, it’s not clear that many of these legislators can win a general election in this environment regardless of what decisions they make. If public opinion turns strongly enough against the president, then simply being a member of the same party may doom a candidate. If a significant portion of their own base is angry with them, that could result in them underperforming against the top of the ticket.
For all of these reasons, there is no winning playbook. No one can honestly say that if a politician just follows a particular script they will come out victorious in the end. And, even if there might be an optimal script for one candidate in one district, it might not work at all with a different candidate in a different district.
This is why I think any Republican officeholder who considers his or herself remotely vulnerable should begin operating on the assumption that they will lose and let their guiding star be how they want to be viewed by posterity.
As an exercise, they can envision themselves having served in 1974. They can picture two different worlds. In the first, they broke with Richard Nixon and supported his removal from office. In the second, they loyally stuck with the president and their party. Which of those would they rather have as a record?
Some might be happier being known as stalwarts who never wavered. They should behave accordingly now. I think a majority of them would feel better about themselves if they were in the first category, however, and they should do what they consider the right thing.