The final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump wasn’t exactly the end of the 2016 presidential race, but it was awfully close. Now that there are no more major events before the election, just the daily slog of rallies and organizing and charges and countercharges, you’re going to be less and less able to find Republicans not in Trump’s direct employ who will pretend that they think he’s going to win.
The result will be a kind of silent stampede away from him. Without drawing too much attention to what they’re doing, Republicans everywhere are now going to accept that Hillary Clinton is going to be the next president of the United States, and reposition themselves accordingly.
It wasn’t just the debate itself, at which Trump not only refused to say that he’ll respect the results of the election but effectively sealed his fate with women voters (“such a nasty woman,” he said about Clinton). And it isn’t just the fact that he’s trailing in the polls by a margin from which no candidate has recovered at this stage of the race. It’s also that Republicans look at the candidate himself and the bumbling incompetents with whom he’s surrounded himself, and rightly conclude that the chances that they could come up with a stratagem so brilliant it would reverse the trajectory of this race are rapidly approaching zero. If anything, Clinton’s margin is likely to grow as Trump shoots himself in the foot a few more times and her formidable ground operation keeps banking early votes; meanwhile the Trump campaign thinks it doesn’t need much more than rallies to get its supporters to the polls.
So if you’re a Republican, what do you do now? You save your own skin, and begin thinking about how to deal with a second President Clinton.
Republicans are already hearing that advice from their allies. Today at the National Review, John Fund tells them to begin laying the groundwork for all the investigations they plan to do of Clinton’s administration, which might help them stay in Congress. “It shouldn’t be too hard to make a case to independent and even some Democratic voters that handing Hillary Clinton ‘blank check’ control of Congress would be imprudent and even reckless.” Karl Rove writes much the same thing, saying that holding Congress “may be the best Republicans can hope for.” Fund’s colleague Kevin Williamson writes an article about the future of gun policy entitled “Some Advice for President Clinton.”
“The biggest loser tonight was not Trump, the presidential race is over,” said one Republican pollster. “Instead, down-ticket Republicans lost tonight — they needed some help and got absolutely none.” Even on Fox News, pundits were aghast at Trump’s refusal to say that he’d respect the results of the election, and there is likely to be increasing worry that claiming every day that the contest is “rigged” risks demoralizing and demobilizing Republican voters.
That would be a problem not only for Trump, but for Republicans running for every other office as well. So the more the conventional wisdom that Clinton will win solidifies, the more Republicans need an argument to prod voters to the polls, and “Send me to Washington to keep her in check” is the most logical one.
Nevertheless, that’s far from an ideal message for a Republican candidate. It promises nothing but obstruction — no affirmative agenda, not even a set of principles to guide you. It just says that whatever Clinton does, I’ll oppose, so if you like gridlock, I’m your guy.
Now for some Republican voters, that’s a perfectly persuasive argument. But one of the many ways this campaign has been unusual is that there hasn’t been much of an ideological debate. Perhaps because he’s less comfortable with ideology than with talking about how our leaders are idiots and America is one giant Republic of Losers, Trump hasn’t been making a case that Clinton is a liberal extremist, despite the fact that she’s running on one of the most progressive platforms in history. So while there are lots of voters who dislike Clinton for various reasons, they haven’t been primed to believe that she’s a leftist nutbar with a wild agenda that would turn America into a socialist nightmare where we spend our days standing in bread lines wearing shapeless grey overcoats. If you’re not too worried about that, it makes “Help me stop her!” a little less compelling.
But Trump has left other Republicans without much choice. If their best-case scenario is President Hillary Clinton with a Republican Congress, they can’t promise the realization of conservative policies, just that they’ll try to keep things from getting worse. It isn’t particularly inspiring, but with only 19 days until the election, it’s all they’ve got.