Surveying the conundrum confronting the Republican Party in the age of Donald Trump, an antique TV ad touting Fram oil filters comes to mind.
If you bought the Beatles’ White Album the day it was released and remember Muhammad Ali in his prime, you know the spot: A mechanic in the midst of an overhaul pauses to point out the car’s owner could have avoided this wallet-crushing repair if only he’d been punctual about changing the oil.
“You can pay me now,” said the mechanic, displaying the filter, “or” — with a nod to the mess over his shoulder — “you can pay me later.”
In today’s either-or scenario, Trump is the looming, ugly, costly overhaul; the Republican National Convention might yet be the comparatively thrifty regular-maintenance alternative.
Wait. The RNC? Wasn’t the outcome of that settled a month ago? Yes. Probably. Well, maybe. It depends.
There was a flurry of activity on that front back in March, when North Dakotan Curly Haugland, a veteran member of the RNC’s standing rules committee, spun up a fascinating theory that no delegates were, in fact, bound to a candidate. Zero. No, not even on the first ballot, and certainly not, as Florida’s rules lay out, three. All of it had something to do with long-standing conflicts within the GOP’s convention rules.
The headline on a story few read too deeply was at the time a shocker: “Voters don’t pick the nominee; we do: GOP official.” Trump and his loyalists decried the claim as an attempt to rig the nomination for some oily more-of-what-we-rejected insider. Gary Emineth, also from North Dakota, fretted about the perception of “shenanigans” driving undecided voters toward the Democratic nominee.
All that chatter fell silent as Trump pulverized the last of his primary opposition, crested the threshold of the magic 1,237 pledged delegates to become the presumptive nominee, and began piling up oh-all-right-fine endorsements from high-ranking GOP officials.
Who but the hardest-shelled #NeverTrump die-hards could blame them? They could risk the shenanigans charge — a potent indictment for a class that still can’t make sense of this unruly new breed of Republican voter — or embrace party loyalty swaddled in loathing of Hillary Clinton.
Then, meet now.
Since the top guns, including Speaker Paul Ryan, began tumbling into line, Trump has done nothing worthy of their support. Just last week, instead of blistering Clinton over ripe and low-hanging fruit — the withering report on her email practices by a State Department watchdog; an awful monthly jobs report linkable to White House policies she supports; a policy-free foreign policy rant — Trump was lost in an alternative universe of paranoia dipped in ego, topped with racism.
Yep. Squandering opportunity in a fit of narcissistic pique, the presumptive presidential nominee of the party of Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan — presidents of high principle affixed to unwavering pole stars — whined about unfair treatment by a judge in a civil lawsuit, because the judge, born in Indiana, is Mexican and he — Trump — means to build a wall on the southern border.
Listen. Even if, against scant supporting evidence, Trump is absolutely right, he sacrificed the privilege of waging his claims sometime around Super Tuesday, when voters elevated him from mad-as-hell novelty to viable contender, let alone now that he’s bundled more than sufficient delegates to avoid a contested convention.
Or has he? Suddenly, Haugland’s gambit seems worth revisiting. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham rescinded his commitment, charting a detour for other dismayed Republicans in his “off-ramp” speech.
“I think it’s very un-American for a political leader to question whether a person can judge based on his heritage,” he said. And also, “If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it. There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”
Trump, naturally, offered a statesman’s retort: “Lindsey Graham is a disgrace.” Well. Takes one, etc.
In fact, Graham is onto something. Rescinding endorsements is a good place to start. Responsible Republicans must put distance between themselves and Trump’s destructive rants.
But it has to be more than a start, which introduces the pay-me-now part of the equation. Figuring out how to head Trump off in Cleveland seems, increasingly, like a necessary payout.
Is Haugland right? Can RNC delegates vote their conscience — assuming they have one — from the get-go? The party, urged on by Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, may have to figure that one out.
Would there be fallout? You betcha. Lots of voters fueled by confused, anti-Federalist rage and keen to, well, shenanigans, might boycott Election Day. But the alternative — charging into November behind the drawn sword of an unstable, unhinged, uncurious, thin-skinned rouser of rabbles — would set back genuine, necessary, thoughtful conservative reforms for a generation.
As for Republicans shouldering the pay-me-later alternative, the price of a post-Trump overhaul might be impossible to meet.
Recovering sports columnist and former Tampa Tribune columnist Tom Jackson argues on behalf of thoughtful conservative principles as our best path forward. Fan of the Beach Boys, pulled-pork barbecue and days misspent at golf, Tom lives in New Tampa with his wife, two children and two yappy middle-aged dogs.