Neither Side Will Win the GOP Civil War

October 13, 2016

Donald Trump has opened a civil war with Republicans. After video of Mr. Trump’s vulgar sex talk was published last week, Speaker Paul Ryan said he was “sickened by what I heard.” On Monday, during a conference call with House Republicans, Mr. Ryan said that he would no longer defend Mr. Trump or campaign with him.

This was perhaps unwise because it was unnecessary. Mr. Ryan should have simply promised his nervous caucus that he would devote all his energy, time and resources to holding the GOP’s House majority. He could have left his views about Mr. Trump unsaid. His caucus would have been elated, controversy avoided, and Mr. Trump left without an excuse for a new outburst.

Instead, Mr. Trump spent Tuesday in a Twitter tirade. He accused Republicans of being disloyal and weak. He announced his liberation, proclaiming that “the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to.” Who knew that The Donald we have been seeing was the restrained version?

Striking at the party wasn’t the best move for Mr. Trump. If he wants to be elected and to govern successfully, he should not have attacked congressional Republicans. He has little standing to preach party loyalty, having only recently joined the GOP. He funded Democrats for decades and made a special effort to elect Nancy Pelosi speaker in 2006.

If Mr. Trump wants a Republican Senate to approve his nominees and a Republican House to pass his agenda, then he should give GOP candidates the freedom to do what they must to win. Almost every one of them is polling ahead of him. He needs their coattails to get to the White House.

Mr. Trump’s comments undoubtedly thrilled the “alt-right” leaders of his campaign, who want to burn down the Republican Party perhaps even more than they want Mr. Trump to win. But swing voters are less than impressed. As of Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton’s lead had grown to 6.2 points, 48% to 41.8%, in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

It’s notable that Mr. Trump has lost more ground in recent weeks than Mrs. Clinton has gained. Before the first debate her lead was much smaller, 46.6% to 44.3%. Mr. Trump’s showing in that debate, while lousy, was probably less damaging than his inexplicable actions over the next five days, when he continually disparaged a former Miss Universewhom Mrs. Clinton had used to bait him.

By the time of the second debate this past Sunday, Mrs. Clinton had widened her lead, 47.5% to 42.9% That face-off was like no other. From the moment they marched on stage, refusing to shake hands, until the final question forced them to say something nice about each other, it was brutal.

Expectations for Mr. Trump were incredibly low: Simply because he didn’t commit televised hara-kiri, he lived to fight another day. Expectations for Mrs. Clinton were unrealistically high. She was supposed to deliver a knockout blow, but it never came.

So much is thrown at viewers during a 90-minute debate that the aftermath—the media coverage that follows and the campaign responses—can be even more important in crystallizing voter perceptions. Yet after the second debate, Mr. Trump again picked a fight, this time with a Twitter-storm about his own party.

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