A most telling passage about how Donald Trump appears poised to steamroll his way to the Republican party presidential nomination came over the weekend, just ahead of Super Tuesday, in a lengthy New York Times examination of the GOP’s efforts to stop him.
Even as people have tried to disrupt his path to the nomination, the GOP has “been gripped by a nearly incapacitating leadership vacuum and a paralytic sense of indecision,” wrote Alexander Burns, Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin. “Donors have dreaded the consequences of clashing with Mr. Trump directly. Elected officials have balked at attacking him out of concern that they might unintentionally fuel his populist revolt. And Republicans have lacked someone from outside the presidential race who could help set the terms of debate from afar.”
But while the Times may be correct that there has been a glaring absence of leaders effectively stopping Trump in his tracks, the real question is whether an apparently splintering Republican party could be saved by strong leadership at all.
Let’s look, first, at what kind of vacuum exists. This is a party missing, for all intents and purposes, a past president with the gravitas and credibility who could act as its senior statesman. George W. Bush cannot play that role — not only has his party all but rejected his legacy, but his brother Jeb was in the race, making him a flawed spokesman for his opponent. His father, George H.W. Bush, received a standing ovation at the raucous debate in Houston last week — a contradiction in images if there ever was one — but at 91 and with his own son in the race, he also wasn’t in a position to take up that role. That’s particularly so for a party that seems utterly unrecognizable from the one he once led.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who won the Republican nomination in 2008, may have had his heroism questioned by Trump and be speaking out about “loose talk” in the campaign about torture, but he’s likely to be most remembered for naming Trump endorser Sarah Palin as his running mate and has said he’ll back whomever becomes the Republican nominee. Mitt Romney has perhaps broken through the loudest, raising questions about Trump’s taxes and speaking out on Twitter about Trump’s “coddling of repugnant bigotry” following his response to questions about support from David Duke, the former KKK leader. Still, it comes from a man who lost resoundingly to Obama in 2012.
Other establishment voices have rebuked Trump or his supporters, but how much impact they will make at this point is unclear. For instance, Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman, a former Republican candidate for governor in California who served as national finance co-chair for Chris Christie’s campaign, denounced Christie’s endorsement of Trump as an “astonishing display of political opportunism” and called Trump a “dishonest demagogue” who is “unfit to be president.”
Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, many Republicans seem wary about denouncing Trump head on. Politico reported Monday that of the 14 Republican senators representing Super Tuesday states, 10 were still uncommitted in whom they plan to back; only 16 of the 54 Republican senators were endorsing a candidate who is still in the race. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who also serves as the Republican National Convention chairman, has said he is “neutral in this thing,” though has spoken out on occasion, such as on Tuesday, when he rebuked Trump over his response to the Duke questions. (“This party does not prey on people’s prejudices,” he said.)
More may take on the role as the campaign barrels toward Cleveland, the site of this year’s Republican National Convention. For instance, the New York Times piece reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been telling Republican senators how to create space between themselves and Trump if he becomes the nominee. And some senators are speaking out against Trump — Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has hardly shied away, while freshman Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Sunday that if Trump wins the nomination, he will “look for some third candidate — a conservative option, a Constitutionalist.”
Still, the question remains: Even if there was an obvious elder statesman for the party, or a brave senator willing to risk his own reelection to speak out against Trump, or a uniting voice from outside the party, would it matter? The GOP appears so divided between establishment forces and anti-Washington populism, so splintered between wealthy business leaders and conservative social voters, so fractured between those who shudder at Trump’s anger-spewing rallies and those who relish them, that it’s hard to see how it can feasibly be led as a whole.
The concept of a “leadership vacuum” implies that there is some kind of single, coherent organization or movement that’s missing a person or people to lead it. Perhaps at one time, that singular vacuum existed, when there was an opportunity to bring the two sides together and before it gave rise to the hate-filled and fear-driven forces we see now.
But in 2016, it seems too late to fill that gaping hole of leadership — because there now appear to be at least two of them. There isn’t much leadership on either side of the splintered party — either in those who are leading the establishment as it faces historic change, or in Trump, a demagogue who may have a movement of frustrated, angry Americans rallying behind him but fits few definitions of good leadership.