Beware of headlines based on politicians’ feelings rather than their actions. “The Clinton Campaign Is Afraid of Bernie Sanders” is the banner above a July 7 story at the Atlantic, which offers no evidence of such fear. Peter Beinart writes that the Clinton campaign is avoiding direct criticism of Sanders, preferring to let surrogates like Sen. Claire McKaskill attack the Vermonter as too leftist, but that’s sensible strategy having nothing to do with panic or fear. “Hillary Shoves Bernie into Lake Winnipesaukee”—now that would be an action-packed headline showing real fear on the part of the Democratic front-runner.
I’m also skeptical about “GOP Leaders Fear Damage to Party’s Image as Donald Trump Doubles Down,” the July 8 Washington Post story about “increasingly worried party leaders…urging the presidential candidate to tone down his inflammatory comments about immigration.” Such comments include: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” (The Post has dutifully “fact-checked” such statements, concluding, “there is no evidence immigrants commit more crimes than native-born Americans.”)
The Post quotes “one GOP state party chairman, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he could be frank,” who says of Trump, “He’s already done some damage, and it could be substantial going forward.” But identifiable leaders such as Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus have been more circumspect. The Post reports, “Reluctant to engage publicly and having developed a friendship with Trump in recent years, Priebus decided to call the candidate and quietly ask him to soften his pitch, said GOP donors familiar with Priebus’s thinking.” And the New York Times reported on Friday—using another feelings headline, “Can’t Fire Him: Republican Party Frets Over What to Do With Trump”—that “there has been a striking absence of public denunciations of Mr. Trump from leading Republican candidates for president and the party’s top officials in Washington.”
Trump is playing a familiar role 16 months ahead of the next presidential election. He’s speaking for some of the angriest and most alienated voters in his party, much the way Michelle Bachmann did four years ago. His candidacy is sure to hit a wall (and his participation in early debates may speed up this process), but the party’s xenophobes, as well as those who still believe in Obama birth-certificate conspiracy theories, won’t be able to say they were never given a voice. When Trump finally ends his quest, probably before the New Hampshire primary (so he can insist he would have won it), he will blame the media for “distorting” his views. By that time, most of his supporters will have drifted to one of the less inflammatory Republican candidates, looking for someone who can win in November rather than a loudmouth like Trump.
According to the Times story, “Republican Party leaders agonize over the prospect that Donald Trump will mount a third-party candidacy that could undermine their nominee. They fear insulting the white working-class voters who admire him.” I don’t know how “agonized” Republican leaders really are about the remote chance Trump will waste money running as an independent. But I’m sure these leaders are grateful to the New York Times for helping them to stroke Trump’s ego and to pay their respects to the “voters who admire him.” Trump is unlikely to win any delegates to the Republican National Convention, but he’ll always prize the headlines about party leaders worrying, fretting and agonizing over him.