It's customary, once a candidate has secured a party's presidential nomination, for former rivals and party elders to line up behind the victor. Of course, some of their endorsements are more enthusiastic than others, but generally it isn't just about promoting party unity; typically, leaders of a party will sincerely regard their own nominee as a superior alternative to the other party's candidate.
But there is nothing typical about the impending nomination by the Republican Party of Donald J. Trump. Trump's willful ignorance, hair-trigger temperament and bigoted comments about women and minorities absolve prominent Republicans of any obligation to fall into line even if they agree with him on the issues. (In fact, on several points he seems to depart from the party's core positions.) Party loyalty is no excuse for supporting a manifestly unqualified and possibly dangerous candidate.
To their credit, some prominent Republicans recognize this fact and are refusing to board the Trump train. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has said that Trump lacks the fortitude, humility, temperament and strong character necessary to deal with the challenges that confront the nation. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the party's 2012 candidate, said that "I wanted my grandkids to see that I simply couldn't ignore what Mr. Trump was saying and doing, which revealed a character and temperament unfit for the leader of the free world."
Sadly, however, other Republicans aren't following Romney's and Bush's admirable example. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has offered an agonized but unequivocal endorsement of the man who mocked him as "little Marco." Rubio told CNN that he would attend the Republican National Convention, release his delegates so that they may support Trump and, if asked, speak on Trump's behalf. "I don't want Hillary Clinton to be president," Rubio said. "If there's something I can do to help that from happening, and it's helpful to the cause, I'd most certainly be honored to be considered for that." Earlier in the race, Rubio called Trump a "con artist" and said he had "no ideas of any substance" on the major issues.
Trump also has won the endorsement of two Washington insiders who ought to be appalled by, if nothing else, his contempt for traditional politics. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, calling Trump "a phenomenon," said, "I don't have any problem supporting him." Former Sen. Bob Dole, an elder statesman of the party and its 1996 presidential candidate, added that "the voters of our country have turned out in record numbers to support Mr. Trump. It is important that their votes be honored and it is time that we support the party's presumptive nominee."
It's understandable that prominent Republicans would be reluctant to endorse Hillary Clinton (even if in their hearts they regarded her as preferable to Trump). Yet it's possible to oppose Clinton and also refuse to endorse Trump; indeed, that's the position of Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. And Clinton won't be the only alternative in November for Republicans who can't bring themselves to support Trump. Over the weekend the Libertarian Party nominated former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson for president, raising the possibility of a meaningful third-party candidacy for the first time in decades. And a group of influential conservative Republicans is trying to mount its own third-party challenge as well.
It's harder to dismiss the argument that Republican leaders should support Trump because he was the choice of primary voters. Such deference to the voters' wishes certainly should be the rule; but an exception is necessary when the prevailing candidate is as problematic and poisonous as Trump.
For those reasons, we hope that other prominent Republicans – including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan – resist the pressure to endorse Trump. Ryan so far has refused to make an endorsement, though he has engaged in what he calls productive discussions with Trump. But even if the presumptive nominee were to satisfy Ryan on a range of issues, the objections to Trump's candidacy cited by Romney and Bush – objections rooted in the candidate's character – would remain.
Ryan is widely praised for his seriousness and civility. We hope he doesn't squander that reputation in the name of party unity.
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