By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – During last year’s endless and dispiriting presidential campaign, former President George W. Bush made a rueful joke.
He said that he might end up being the last Republican president in America’s history.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
At the time, it appeared Donald Trump was going to lose the election. During the primaries, he had splintered the GOP into tiny shavings and many leaders and many constituencies within the party were at each others’ throats.
The end seemed near.
But then Trump won one of the most unlikely – and narrowest – victories in history.
Granted a new lease on life, the GOP went about papering over its internal differences. Mystified by Trump’s rise and his hold on a relatively small but highly motivated part of the American electorate, Republican leaders in Congress have tried to find a way to feel their way through a political landscape they don’t even recognize.
Many of them doubtless privately wish that Democrat Hillary Clinton had won in November.
If she had, they still could be using “Benghazi” almost as a form of punctuation and raising massive amounts of money by pointing to the threat she presented. They could push for still more votes to end “Obamacare” without having to assume the responsibility of replacing it with anything and thus avoid having to take a hit for voting to strip 24 million Americans of coverage. They could have kept running the same playbook they’d used against Barack Obama, only against a president with fewer political skills and less political capital.
But Donald Trump won.
And now Republicans find themselves having to contend with – or, worse, accept – one outrage after another.
Consider just the past few days.
President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for, his staff initially said, the way Comey mishandled the investigation into Clinton’s handling of emails, but then Trump and his staff changed the story and the justification with almost every succeeding breath.
Then a story broke that Trump fired Comey because the FBI director refused to confirm his “loyalty” to the president.
Right on the heels of that story, Trump apparently revealed classified information to Russian emissaries, which touched off another firestorm.
Following that conflagration came another report that Trump had asked Comey to call off the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, which – if true – could constitute obstruction of justice and be an impeachable offense.
While Trump and his partisans have tried to blame these imbroglios on journalists, liberals and everyone else in sight – they love to preach accountability but struggle with practicing it – the truth is that every one of these wounds to the Trump and GOP agenda and image is self-inflicted.
Each one of these avoidable and self-created crises has forced Republicans in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives to ignore (at best) or defend (at worst) conduct they would abhor in any other circumstance.
Who would have thought, for example, that the GOP ever would be “soft” on national-security issues?
But the nature of Trump’s victory puts Republicans in a quandary. Even though they watch this president veer along an increasingly erratic and self-destructive course, they know they cannot possibly win in many places without the support of Trump voters.
Thus, as long as 30 to 35 percent of the electorate remains loyal to the president, most Republicans feel as though they have no choice but to cling to him.
This puts members of the GOP in a position for which psychologists have a name.
The problem for the party is that Republicans now are not just enabling Donald Trump to perform ever-larger acts of personal self-destructiveness. They’re also enabling their own destruction.
The longer they ignore his legal transgressions and defend his ethical offenses, the more they own the Trump record of calamity.
And the more they let the president do lasting, perhaps irrevocable damage to the party of Lincoln.
Former President George W. Bush – whose family has provided three generations of distinguished service to this nation – didn’t laugh when he told his off-hand joke about being the last Republican president.
Tragedies are no laughing matter.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.