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The Trump Problem Returns, Part II: Republican Politics

We're not going to know how well pollsters are doing until people cast some actual 2024 votes, and that's roughly 8 months away. So, we actually think this storyline is more interesting, at least at the moment, because it's going to be playing out around us every day for the foreseeable future.

Donald Trump had his nationally televised rally town hall last week, of course, and he said a whole bunch of nutty things. Oh, and he was also found liable for committing sexual assault. The former president never seems to pay much of a political price for these things, but his fellow Republicans certainly do. And over the weekend, there were exemplars of at least three different strategies that Republican politicians and activists tried to deploy to avoid fallout:

  1. The "Let's Not Race to Judgment": Our case study here is Nikki Haley, who believes she is a candidate for vice president. Consistent with that, she was on Face the Nation yesterday, and was asked "Do you think it undermines your party if the Republican frontrunner is someone who was just found legally liable for sexually abusing a woman?" Haley, who clearly has a black belt in the 5 D's of Dodgeball (dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge), danced around the question, first noting that she was not the judge and she was not on the jury, and later pointing out that Trump has appealed the verdict, and we can't really say anything until that is resolved. If you go back and reread the question, you will note it is entirely answerable regardless of the disposition of Trump's legal case.

  2. The "Pass the Buck": Anytime UCLA's basketball team gets in some trouble with the NCAA, there's a joke that makes the rounds: "The NCAA is so angry with UCLA they are thinking about suspending Cal State Long Beach's basketball team for the next 2 years." Christianity Today Editor-in-Chief Russell Moore was on Meet the Press yesterday. To his credit, he was willing to express disapproval of Trump's conduct in the sexual assault case. However, he was not quite willing to say he won't vote for Trump. On the other hand, Moore was absolutely disgusted by Mike Pence's downplaying of the verdict, and was happy to say that he will never, ever vote for the former vice president.

  3. The "I Know You Think You Understand What You Thought He Said but I'm Not Sure You Realize That What You Heard Is Not What He Meant": Let's use Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) for this one. In this case, the question was not about the sexual assault, but about Trump's unwillingness, at the town hall, to say he wants Ukraine to defeat Russia. The former president's exact words were: "I don't think in terms of winning and losing. I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing these people." When McCaul was asked about that, he hemmed and hawed and then said: "I think he always thinks in terms of winning and losing. I will say this, I think what he is thinking is that this counteroffensive, which happening soon, will be so successful we can have a ceasefire and get to a negotiating phase." That is not remotely what Trump said, of course, and it's not remotely what he meant. If the former president is looking forward to a quick Ukrainian victory, there were a hundred ways he could have said that. It could not be clearer that he's pro-Russia, but knows it's impolitic to say so on national TV. Exactly why he's pro-Russia is... an excellent question.

These are pretty ham-fisted solutions to the problem posed by Trump, but they are pretty much all that the other Republicans have. He's got the support of the base, so the politicos can't roast him when he issues forth with this slop. But embracing Trumpism whole-hog will be fatal in the general election for many Republicans. And so, verbal gymnastics are all they have if they want to save their bacon. And yes, that is five pig references in a single paragraph. You can't get this kind of poetry anywhere else.

Incidentally, this isn't just theoretical. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants his gavel back very badly, and is taking a very hands-on approach to next year's Senate contests (he was much more passive in 2022, hoping that NRSC leader Rick Scott would do a much better job that he did). However, McConnell is also a realist, and doesn't want to waste money and resources on unwinnable races. So, he's already making contingency plans for what will happen if Trump is on the ballot. It is well within the realm of possibility that McConnell & Co. will conclude that there are only three or four winnable seats (West Virginia, Montana, Ohio and possibly Pennsylvania), and will put all their chips on those contests. The map would be much wider if someone other than Trump was the candidate. (Z)

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