Donald Trump is burning through every one of his nine political lives.
The Access Hollywood tape that broke Friday afternoon sent GOP elected officials fleeing from the Republican nominee over the weekend in a truly historic rupture. Trump’s odds of winning the presidency were already long before the airing of the tape. With a swath of the party now in open revolt, they are longer still.
We understand the calls for Trump to step aside. Almost any other Republican would have a better chance of defeating Hillary Clinton, a dreary and corrupt statist who is the Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis of our time, yet is beating her desperately flawed opponent. But this would require Trump acting the statesman, which clearly isn’t going to happen (he has said he will “never” leave). Nor are House speaker Paul Ryan, vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, or RNC chairman Reince Priebus going to mount the hard-ball pressure campaign that might make Trump consider the matter differently. Pence praised Trump’s debate performance last night to the hilt and Priebus has been eager all year to bend a knee to Trump. Finally, even if Trump wanted to step aside, the process of choosing a new nominee and negotiating ballot access for the party’s designee this late in the campaign would be unprecedented and perilous in the best-case scenario.
Still, the party will have to do what it can to limit the damage. Congressional Republicans should try to separate themselves from Trump, a process that is well underway. And the party should make saving its congressional wing — an indispensable check on a potential Hillary Clinton presidency, and a Trump presidency as well, should it somehow come to pass — its highest priority. Speaker Ryan is signaling that this is his intention. This tack must be executed delicately, because embattled down-ballot Republicans still need Trump voters, but it’s the right approach.
It may seem odd that, after so many controversies, the Access Hollywood tape provoked such a reaction. It is true that it doesn’t reveal anything very new about Trump. And surely if hot mics had caught off-color banter from JFK we would have heard similar things. But that doesn’t make it any less appalling. Here is a nearly 60-year-old man boasting — and probably not idly — about his attempted adultery and unwanted sexual advances and groping. No presidential candidate has ever been heard to utter such things before.
The rejoinder from Trump’s campaign is that Bill Clinton is worse, and Hillary Clinton has been his enabler. Trump made these points in the course of his robust and relatively competent performance in last night’s debate. There is no doubt that Bill Clinton is a predatory womanizer and Hillary participated in the political operation to discredit his partners and victims. It is satisfying to see someone make this case forcefully. But as a sheer political matter, it’s hard to see how the swing voters Trump needs will forgive his grossness because of Bill’s.
It is no secret that we are not fans of Donald Trump, who is not a conservative or an honorable man. The only thing to recommend him is that he’s not Hillary Clinton, but even this quality has to be weighed against the fact that his recklessly selfish campaign is very likely to make her president of the United States. In this circumstance, Republicans need to do exactly what Trump always does: ruthlessly look after their own interests.