Donald Trump has the GOP trapped in not one Catch-22, but two. Call it a Catch-44.
The first Catch-22 has been the subject of widespread conversation over the last few weeks. As GOP pollster Glen Bolger summed it up for the New York Times. "Do we run the risk of depressing our base by repudiating the guy? Or do we run the risk of being tarred and feathered by independents for not repudiating him?”
“We're damned if we do and damned if we don't," he added.
Lots of Republicans adore Donald Trump — just consider the enthusiasm at his massive rallies — and will turn on the establishment Republicans who betray him.
But roughly one out of five Republicans do not support the nominee. College educated married white women – a major part of the GOP demographic coalition – are abandoning him. Trump is behind by huge margins in key swing states. His standing in the national polls is flirting with the catastrophic.
It’s only early August and already Republican strategists are speculating that down-ballot candidates will have to cut and run from the nominee.
“If I were advising a candidate, and I used to do that for a living, the first thing I'd tell them is, ‘Don't put yourself in the middle of other people's races.’ " Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said on MSNBC.
That brings us to the second Catch-22. Republican candidates at this stage have no excuses to offer if they decide to repudiate Trump other than naked self-interest.
Let’s assume Trump cannot mount a comeback and becomes an albatross for countless Republican candidates across the country. And let’s say they jump ship.
Then every Democrat in the country – not to mention almost every pundit – will say, “You guys were fine with Trump as the nominee when he was a racist, but now that he’s hurting the whole GOP’s chances he’s suddenly unacceptable?”
And there will be some truth to the accusation.
It’s instructive to look at what prompted the flop-sweat panic of recent days. After leaving the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Trump climbed the rhetorical jackass tree and then hurled himself earthward, hitting every branch on the way down.
There’s not enough space here to recount in any serious detail all of the self-destructive statements and bizarre rabbit holes he spelunked into – from attacking the parents of Capt. Humayun Kahn, a soldier who died serving our country, to “jokingly” inviting the Russians to muck about in our elections, to reviving past controversies about Sen. Ted Cruz’s father’s alleged complicity in the Kennedy assassination.
And yet GOP establishment leaders stuck with their man — just as they’d stuck with their man when he threw NATO under the bus, and ridiculed our treaty obligations with Japan, and attacked American-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s alleged conflict of interest between his professional duties and his Mexican heritage. (Sure, House Speaker Paul Ryan and others criticized Trump’s comments, but did not officially distance themselves from him.)
GOP leaders contemplated pulling the emergency break on the Trump Train only when the nominee said he wouldn’t endorse Ryan or Sens. John McCain and Kelly Ayotte.
The message was clear: Only his willingness to endanger top Republicans’ re-election was truly unacceptable behavior. Nothing else Trump said or did until then was beyond the pale.
In fact, the message was so clear that even Trump heard it. After an intervention his campaign denies took place, Trump grudgingly fell in line, reading a statement endorsing Ryan, McCain and Ayotte with all the enthusiasm of an adolescent boy forced to apologize for shoplifting.
There are no good options left for the GOP. However its leaders pivot to boost the party’s chances in November, they risk revealing that winning is their only sacred principle — that is to say, admitting they have no sacred principles at all.