Nate Silver of Fivethirtyeight Blog reported this weekend that Donald Trump presently trails Hillary Clinton in the polls by a margin not duplicated since the 1984 election. Which means that the gap between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, according to the American people, appears to be about as wide as the gap between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. A candidate who more than half of the country views to be “unfavorable”, and who was only recently cleared by the FBI of criminal conduct, but not until being chastised by their director, is looking down on the Republican candidate for president, by the same margin Ronald Regan looked down on Jimmy Carter’s Vice President. That’s who Walter Mondale was-by the way.
Mr. Trump could still win of course. We’re 90 days out. And there’s really no telling what may happen. It would take a pretty drastic reversal of the trend though-the outcome of something dramatic. The current downward spiral is a result of Trump simply being exactly what he has been the entire campaign-combative, hyper-defensive vague and nonsensical. No Change, except the audience.
Lost in all the sensational headlines and the comical soundbites-kicking babies out of rallies, rambling about Iranian ransom tapes that don’t exist-is exactly where we are on the arc of the evolution of the Republican Party. There’s a sinking feeling that there’s now no reasonable counter to the notion that the GOP, a party founded on the moral imperative of righting the wrong of slavery, has entirely yielded moral authority to the Democratic Party. It’s showing in the selection of their presidential candidate and now its showing in their appeal-or lack there of- to the general electorate.
That’s not a good thing. Not even for Democrats. After all, they’re Americans too. The two party system works best when our skepticism is fueled by principle, not hate and fear. When it’s not, we get what’s happening now.
All American political parties have had a serpentine path through their positions in the American political landscape. It’s not a straight line. What was once in favor of abolition was then in favor of segregation. What was once in favor of a strong union and executive authority, was then driven by the beacon of personal liberties. And during those times, there have been instances where they’ve gotten it wrong. There is not absolute relativism in politics. Meaning, the right conservative view and the right liberal view are not always taken by the conservative and liberal parties. The Democratic Party, for instance, got it wrong when it came to slavery. The result? For the next 72 years, the Republican Party was in the White House for 64 of them. The only thing that ended that run, was the Great Depression. If you were 90 years old in 1933, and you were a Democrat, you voted for one president in your life time. I’ll say it again. You can get this wrong with lasting consequence.
It’s important to be more specific than just pointing to Donald Trump as the description of what we’ve gotten wrong here though. What goes wrong isn’t really the positions or the candidate choices that the conservative base is dictating. Those are symptoms, really. And the problem itself is ill defined as simply, conservatism. Conservatism is good. You can go from Hoover’s principles of private enterprise to Nixon’s law and order to Reagan’s strong link economic policies-all way points on the conservative platform journey of the last 90 years or so-and not lose your way. In fact, you can prosper. But what you can’t do, is that thing that the Democratic Party of 1860 did. That thing that resulted in three quarters of a century out of the White House. You can’t publicly abandon human dignity. Not entirely, the way you would have to by declaring that the bondage of humans was a state’s right. Because when you do, things like bigotry and nativism start to drive the ship. And your policies start to look less like they’re grounded in moral authority and more like they’re grounded in fear. And one thing America has showed the world, over the last 240 years, is that fear, over the long term, is a losing platform.
Now, I’m not going to hold the droves of angry working class Americans responsible-those that flocked to the polls to express their displeasure in the state of their lives by casting a vote for a reality TV star/celebrity feud-er. I guess it technically is their fault. But they had a message and they delivered it. They believed their party had forgotten them. So they acted out like ignored children. Except the party hasn’t forgotten them. They’ve forgotten their party-which was never originally about fear and nativism. That’s not the true wrong here. Hurt people, hurt people. The true wrong here, is the failure in leadership that had no answer to their call.
I know it’s democracy and “the people have spoken”. Except that most really haven’t. The Donald Trump discussion has been forced on us by a group that represents about 10% of American voters. He received less than half of the votes cast by a party of people that represents about a third of the American electorate. And yet, here we are, entertaining a level of nonsense in our executive election that we never should as a nation of power. It’s a failure of leadership, not democracy.
Anyone who’s ever lead anyone through anything tough has heard the calls from those they lead to take the quick, reactive route through it. Someone somewhere is less concerned with honor and dignity and decency then they are with saving themselves some effort, or danger or sacrifice. Usually it’s the same group of people-seeing the world through only their eyes, rarely able to remove themselves from the moment enough to weigh the consequences of their decisions. Chances are if you made it through that tough thing, you had to address those people and either get them on board, or leave them behind. The former is desired. But the latter happens.
If we desire to have credible conservative participation in our American political discourse, then we should be completely comfortable leaving those fundamentally attached to the message of fear, bigotry and nativism behind. Because if we don’t, we’re going to be out of the White House for a long, long time. We didn’t elect “W” on that platform. We didn’t elect his father or Ronald Reagan on it either. I’ll say it again fear, is a loser. It’s the residue that’s left over when we fail to lead.
So what does strong conservative leadership look like? It doesn’t look like standing at a podium and spewing scared rhetoric about everything that isn’t you. Leadership in the face of dire threat looks different than that. It’s putting on a bullet-proof vest, walking out to the mound at Yankees stadium and throwing a strike six weeks after 3,000 Americans were murdered in a terrorist attack. Just to show the world that we’re still here. We’re still playing baseball for God’s sake. And you’ll never change us. Not a racist, scared word in sight. It’s walking away from the table at Reykjavík because you didn’t get the nuclear arms deal that America needed. And then demanding to your mortal enemy that they tear down the wall that divided us before they folded and did just that. That’s what conservative leadership looks like. And it’s been nowhere in sight for a long time.
Forgive me if that sounds incredibly naive to conservative political insiders. The ones that say things like, “What do you expect us to do? Lose the Election? To Hillary? “ When I’m interested in rolling over and surrendering my principles to a demagogue, I know where to go for advice. But if I’m looking for leadership in the face of hard and trying times, I’ll go elsewhere. Perhaps to one of the founders of the great Party.
In 1865, months before he would surrender his life for the cause of the Union, with hundreds of thousands of Americans already laying in their graves and tens of thousands more yet to give there life, Lincoln stood at the podium in front of the American people. Many wanted peace by then. At any cost. Even if it meant union with slavery. Many wanted the easy path. They were tired. And scared. Lincoln, also tired, gaunt, looking broken from the years of war stared them down with these words.
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
We brought this war upon us with the sins of our unjust actions. And we’re ready to pay our debt, every last drop, if that’s what it takes to right our wrong. That’s personal accountability. That’s human decency. That’s conservative leadership.
If there’s one good thing that has come from this train wreck, the truly weak have raised their hands to be recognized. People like, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Scott Walker, Tom Cotton. Orrin Hatch, Trey Gowdy, Duncan Hunter, from my neighboring district. Speaker Paul Ryan, that one hurt. The entirety of the political evangelical movement. And my personal hero John McCain,who somehow managed to forego early release from a prison camp in Hanoi, in order to ensure others in captivity before him left appropriately. But he couldn’t tell the American people not to vote for Donald Trump. I read his book. I lived in his room in Annapolis. His roommate was the Admiral in charge when I went there. He popped in and told me they lived there too. I idolized him and drew on his story for strength in times of personal crisis. That one hurt the most. It’s a hard thing to lead with dignity and honor at all costs. I get it.
There are many others. 38 Senators in all. Over a 150 members of the House, 19 governors, including Mike Pence, his running mate of course. But there were also others who didn’t. It’s fair to call them out. Because if we’re ever going to climb out of this failure, it’s important to take note of who didn’t fold. Who didn’t roll over and go quietly into the night. People like Mitt Romney, the entire Bush family, John Kasich and Ted Cruz. Say what you want about Glenn Beck, but he’s about the only member of the conservative media that didn’t fold. Lindsay Graham, Christi Witman, Ben Sasse. There are others who were neither afraid to lose the election nor afraid of the consequence in the event that their party had won, and they hadn’t bent the knee. That’s leadership. Even if Trump wins, that’s leadership. Right is right.
If you can’t read this without the feverish urge welling up within you to argue how bad and undignified the other side is, then go ahead. But perhaps you can take a moment beforehand to realize that you’ve stopped arguing that you’re party is dignified at all. And for me, that’s a consequence that lasts longer than the next four years.