A full rupture with the RNC has never felt closer
The moveable feast of exiled Republicans seeking an alternative to Donald Trump at the top of the ticket persists in its hope that the billionaire may end his faltering campaign. But his recent moves suggest he may bolt the party, not the race. This might free the RNC to name a new candidate, but create precisely the three-way contest Reince Priebus hoped to avoid by accepting Trump into the fold a year ago.
The logic for such a defection is inherent in Trump's outsider status, which he has begun to highlight again as his polls deflated like so many of last month's convention balloons. A tenuous détente followed the convention as the candidate acceded to the occasional teleprompter, statistics-drizzled speeches and other trappings of political adulthood. But with Republican critics reaching new levels and the Wall Street Journal calling for Trump to shape up or ship out, the mogul just might opt for the latter.
In public statements and fundraising emails, Trump has revived his ire toward the media - "If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly...I would be beating Hillary by 20%," he tweeted on Sunday - and toward "Certain Republicans who have lost to me." On Tuesday, Trump demoted political insider Paul Manafort, who had tried to rein in the candidate's worst tendencies; elevated Breitbart firebrand Steve Bannon; and explicitly rejected the "pivot" in tone and substance that party stalwarts had long sought. Message: Classic Trump is back.
New Trump was a bust from the start, and there was an almost contractual symmetry at work in the strained impatience of both Trump and his establishment co-tormentors. Like those who stuck by him while squirming through his worst gaffes, Trump's attempts at civility felt less like acquiescence than the public exhaustion of his obligations. Should man and party dissolve the political bands which have connected them, each can say they did all they could - all while petulantly declaring the other in breach.
With Trump's recent moves in defiance of Republican campaign orthodoxy, the ball is now back in the establishment's court. Many House and Senate candidates are already distancing themselves from their standard-bearer, and Ryan has publicly given them a blank check to do so. The next step would be for the Republican National Committee to make good on its murmurings about drawing resources from the presidential race to protect down-ballot candidates.
As reported in TIME, whether and how such a possibility was communicated to the candidate has already brought new friction to the tinder-box of his relations with the RNC. Should the party indeed go after ticket-splitters "who shun Trump" but might "remain open to supporting vulnerable congressional candidates," the new team of Trump loyalists would have precious few reasons to stay in the party. As Trump said at the campaign's outset: staying in the party depends on "how I'm being treated by the Republicans."
The most artful thing about such a deal is that it doesn't even need to be negotiated. The terms couldn't be clearer: The party sacrifices a dwindling number of hardcore Trump votes, but shores up its Congressional bulwark against a Clinton presidency, which now seems a foregone conclusion whether in a two-candidate majority or a three-candidate plurality. Trump exits on his own terms - give or take the challenges of mounting a write-in campaign at this late date in many states - while pitching blame to the corrupt media bent against him and the rigged party that pulled the rug from under him.
NeverTrump Republicans failed to consolidate against Trump in the primaries, deny him delegates at the convention, fashion a rule that might allow his ouster for cause, or convince a more plausible candidate than David French or Evan McMullin to lead a third-party bid. They may believe a clean schism is the best outcome left. But after handing the race to Hillary Clinton, they must face the fault lines Trump exposed in the party from the start--and accept that no teleprompter was ever going to paper them over.