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Republican-leaning papers endorse Clinton; what will the Wall Street Journal do?

Republican-leaning papers endorse Clinton; what will the Wall Street Journal do?
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump visits the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., Friday. (Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images)

Another day, another endorsement for Hillary Clinton from a conservative newspaper editorial board.

Wait, what?

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A few days after the Arizona Republic endorsed its first Democratic presidential candidate in its 126-year history, the San Diego Union-Tribune followed suit for the first time in its 148 years. The U-T piece offered a less-than-glowing assessment of Clinton, but its main focus was the litany of reasons why Donald Trump shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the Oval Office.

"Terrible leaders can knock nations off course," the U-T's editorial board observed Friday. "Venezuela is falling apart because of the obstinance and delusions of Hugo Chávez and his successor. Argentina is finally coming out of the chaos created by Cristina Kirchner and several of her predecessors. Trump could be our Chávez, our Kirchner. We cannot take that risk."

When Trump won the nomination, the Journal's editorial board was caught in an excruciatingly uncomfortable place


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"So what," you say, "it's just a newspaper editorial." And as an editorial writer, I'd be inclined to agree — as the Pew Charitable Trust reported in 2008, the vast majority of people surveyed say they're not influenced by a newspaper endorsement. (So much for our endorsement of Clinton on Sunday.) But as a study by Brown University economists showed, unexpected newspaper endorsements, such as when a conservative paper backs a Democrat or a liberal one backs a Republican, can be more influential because voters see them as more credible.

The reversals by the likes of the U-T and the Republic (and the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Dallas Morning News) are more remarkable but no less telling than the anti-Trump blasts from right-leaning editorial boards that couldn’t bring themselves to back Clinton. One example came Friday from a sister publication of the Union-Tribune (and The Times), the Chicago Tribune, which threw its support behind a long shot, Libertarian Party nominee Gary "Aleppo" Johnson (a former Republican governor of New Mexico who’s actually closer to the GOP orthodoxy on trade and debt than Trump is).

Wrote the Tribune, "Trump has gone out of his way to anger world leaders, giant swaths of the American public, and people of other lands who aspire to immigrate here legally. He has neither the character nor the prudent disposition for the job. The mystery and shame of Trump's rise — we have red, white and blue coffee mugs that are more genuinely Republican — is the party's inability or unwillingness to repulse his hostile takeover."

So, what will the Wall Street Journal say? Owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., the Journal is the top-selling U.S. newspaper, and its editorial board is unequivocally conservative. And the board is totally in the tank for small-government Republicans (insert your joke here about The Times’ editorial board and its Democratic Party overlords).

But during the primaries, the board was sharply critical of Trump and his, umm, unique brand of Republican politics. It appeared to be rooting for an actual conservative, such as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, or a conservative who might broaden the party's appeal, such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, or a conservative with a record of balancing budgets, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

When Trump won the nomination, much to the shock of the Journal and the rest of the news media elite, the paper's editorial board was caught in an excruciatingly uncomfortable place: If it supported Trump, it would be asking Americans to vote for someone whose core positions on trade, immigration, foreign policy, entitlement reform, executive power and the national debt were, by the board's calculations, drastically wrong. But hey, he's for tax cuts! So he's got that going for him. And if it supported Clinton, it would be urging Americans to put the Supreme Court into the hands of liberal jurists for a decade or more, while only worsening the tax and regulatory burdens that the board believes are slowing economic growth and tamping down incomes.

What to do, what to do….

I should note here, as several folks have pointed out, that the Journal hasn’t made a formal endorsement in a presidential race since it backed Herbert Hoover Murdoch in 1928. But the board hasn’t been shy about making its preferences known informally, throughout the primaries and the general election campaign.

The paper is close to Roger Ailes, the ousted Fox News Channel chief who’s now advising Trump, and Fox News has been cheerleading for Trump as if he were your average Republican presidential nominee. (OK, OK, now insert your joke here about The Times and its pompom-waving coverage of the Clinton campaign). But some members of the Journal’s board have been withering in their criticisms of Trump and his unsuitability for higher office.

On Friday, Journal board member Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote an op-ed blasting the "NeverHillary forces" for ignoring, among other things, Trump's "casual disregard for the truth," "self-obsession," "ignorance," "ingrained vindictiveness," "grandiosity," "impulse-driven character" and "insatiable need for applause." It concludes by defending Clinton as "experienced, forward-looking, indomitably determined and eminently sane." That's not high praise in an absolute sense, but it towers above her assessment of Trump, who would be "the most unstable, profoundly uninformed, psychologically unfit president ever to enter the White House."

Her colleague Bret Stephens, who specializes in foreign policy, had previously outlined the reasons he considers Trump "unfit, as a person, to be president." But they are just two of a dozen members of the board (not counting its editors), and four others revealed a clear rooting interest for Trump in their post-debate analyses.

This is all inside baseball, more interesting to the small fraternity of editorial writers than anyone who has a life. Still, I don't envy the choice facing the Journal's board members. Trump's profound flaws make it easy for a newspaper like The Times to back Clinton despite the baggage she carries and the mistrust she engenders even among those who otherwise admire her. But they present the Journal's board with a choice of three bad options: Support Johnson, who doesn't seem up to the task of the presidency, has zero chance of winning, and would have no party support in Congress if he somehow did win; tout Trump, who clearly isn't up to the task of the presidency, blithely says wildly provocative things (such as calling for the U.S. to attack Iranian ships that annoy U.S. vessels, or for the South Koreans to have nuclear weapons) and advocates economically disastrous policies on trade and immigration; or throw in with Clinton, a move that would be so unexpected and newsworthy that it could doom Trump's candidacy.

I hope the Journal will have the courage to pick option three. My guess, though, is that Rabinowitz's op-ed was the consolation prize she received after her colleagues voted to hold their noses, suppress their gag reflexes, cross their fingers and back Trump.

Twitter: @jcahealey

UPDATES:

4:05 p.m. Monday: This post was updated to reflect the Wall Street Journal editorial board's custom of not making formal endorsements in the presidential race.

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