The last two Republican presidents — who both happen to be named Bush — are refusing to endorse their party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Mitt Romney, Bob Dole and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the three living Republicans who won the nomination but fell short of the White House, have not endorsed Trump. The Republican speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, announced on Thursday that he is not ready to support Trump because he wants “a standard-bearer that bears our standards.”
Those are just the most familiar names among prominent Republicans who are staying off the Trump bandwagon. Nothing like this has ever happened. Even in 1964, when many well-known Republicans were horrified by Barry Goldwater’s nomination, the 1960 nominee, Richard Nixon, campaigned for Goldwater, and the most recent GOP president at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, gave him a tepid endorsement.
This year, many Republican leaders are not merely shunning Trump, some are looking for a candidate to run against him to give conservative voters an option other than sitting out the election or voting for the Democratic nominee. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse has forcefully come out against Trump, and now a political action committee has formed to draft Sasse for a third-party ticket. When asked if he would run, Sasse said, “Absolutely not.” Sasse may truly not be interested, but someone else could be. It really does not matter who it is because those pushing for a third candidate do not care about winning, they just want to make sure Trump loses.
All these Republican insiders seem as freaked out by the possibility of a Trump victory as they are by the prospect of him losing big and dragging down GOP candidates for the Senate and the House. They are serious people who really do not want their commander-in-chief to be a man who claims to know all about Russia because he ran a Miss Universe beauty contest in Moscow, a guy who would put as much stock in bogus news stories from National Enquirer as he would a national security briefing.
And, whether they think Trump has a chance to win, they really do not want their conservative party to become the tool of a man whose political principles are highly elastic. That’s what Ryan means when he implies Trump falls short of the party’s “standards.”
Unlike those past Republican nominees and presidents, Ryan does not have the luxury of skipping out on the GOP convention in Cleveland this July. As speaker, he is slotted to chair the convention. Will he still be able to withhold his endorsement, even after he runs the roll call that makes Trump the nominee? When the red, white and blue balloons rain from the ceiling and Trump brings his glamorous family onstage for his moment of triumph, will Ryan be standing close by? Or will he find that is a good time for a bathroom break?
There will be many such awkward moments awaiting Republican leaders in the months to come. That is what happens to a party that does not realize it is being conquered until the wild usurper and his rebellious horde are already inside the gates.