By showing what they won’t stand for, too many candidates have also shown what they will allow—and that poses an electoral problem.
Last week, the political world was shocked when the Washington Post dropped a bombshell report in which Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump was caught on a hot microphone bragging, in lewd detail, about how he gets away with kissing, groping, and having sex with women, sometimes against their will. This was the prevailing story through the weekend and into this week, and rightly so. Despite his efforts to downplay it as “locker room talk” and not any indicator of his actual activities, Republicans and Democrats alike were stunned and disgusted by how cavalier he detailed what amounts to unbridled sexual assault.
After the tape was released, Democrats were quick to pounce on Trump’s remarks, as could be expected, but what was more surprising was the number of Republican candidates and officeholders who denounced or rescinded their endorsements of their party’s chosen candidate. This is a startling admission that Republicans are in a real jam—it is too late for Mr. Trump to be taken off the ballot with voting already underway in several states and, even if it were possible, we know from his entire campaign that Mr. Trump is far too stubborn to admit defeat and go down that easily. Instead, candidates who are down ballot from Mr. Trump in just a few short weeks have gone into full self-preservation mode.
While denouncing or condemning Mr. Trump’s comments about women may have been the right thing to do, many candidates, most notably Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have not yet retracted their endorsement or support. The optics of this are certainly troubling. For Mr. Ryan, especially, this is not the first time that he has condemned something that Mr. Trump has said or done. In fact, the list of Trumpisms that Mr. Ryan has condemned may rival or surpass those that he has praised.
But the candidates who have gone so far as to retract their endorsement are presented with a new slew of unintended electoral problems: by showing what they won’t stand for, it also indicates what they have already allowed and turned a blind eye toward. In other words, their breaking point leaves a turbulent wake of salacious, lewd, or insensitive comments that they, through their silence, have implicitly condoned.
From day one of his campaign, Donald Trump has pursued divisive, outrageous, and insulting rhetoric toward countless demographic groups, all the while building support and growing his list of endorsements. His targets have included Mexicans, prisoners of war, women, Muslim-Americans, a gold star family, disabled Americans, and soldiers who have returned from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder. He dithered on his renouncement of renowned white supremacist David Duke and he has fueled the alt-right movement’s hatred and conspiracy theories.
George Will, one of the nation’s leading and most respected conservative thinkers, said it best in a column this week when he noted “Again, the tape revealed nothing about this arrested-development adolescent that today’s righteously recoiling Republicans either did not already know or had no excuse for not knowing.”
As Mr. Will suggests, where was the outrage after all of the above? It wasn’t hours after the latest story broke that Republicans were lining up to express their outrage and retract their endorsements, citing their “daughters, wives, and mothers” as appropriate justification to be so disgusted, but in waiting until the pile of insults had reached a tipping point, these candidates have shown their hand. Voters—especially who care about the myriad groups that have been demeaned through this campaign— would be wise to remember that even though their candidate may have eventually reached a breaking point where support became untenable, there is much to read and consider in what any candidate allowed. We would be right to interpret their silence up to this point as an endorsement, even if their official statement of support has been withdrawn for the sake of political expediency.