It was one more rotten day for the anti-immigrant crowd. Both McCain and Rubio were members of the Gang of Eight. Both support a path to citizenship. Once again, we see that actual GOP voters bear no resemblance to talk radio’s anti-immigration fanatics. These incumbent senators are popular conservatives whose views on immigration are well known. As with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who crushed his primary opponent (84 percent to 16 percent) and also favors immigration reform, voters seem rather comfortable with Republicans who favor what Donald Trump (at least up until today) would call “amnesty.”
Speaking of Trump, all three of these Republicans endorsed Trump; McCain and Rubio declined to attend the convention. All three have criticized Trump from time to time. Rubio has strained and struggled in public trying to explain how a man he could not trust with the nuclear codes could enjoy his endorsement.
Republicans who favor appeasing Trump have argued that it would be political “suicide” to refuse to support Trump. But do gigantic wins by three prominent Republicans actually show that — or do they tell us that Republicans have been unnecessarily timid?
We start by acknowledging that we do not have a “control” in this thought experience. We do not know for certain that a Ryan, McCain or Rubio who declined to endorse Trump would have won. That said, it is hard to imagine that McCain’s 13-point margin of victory would have evaporated had he said at some point that insulting POWs and Hispanics, including Judge Gonzalo Curiel, was beyond the pale. It’s impossible to imagine that Rubio’s 53-point advantage over his closest challenger would have disappeared had Rubio had the courage to withhold his endorsement.
Having now endorsed Trump, however, it stands to reason that both Rubio and McCain will have a tougher time winning over anti-Trump voters, who make up nearly half of the general electorate. Their Democratic opponents will attempt to tie them to Trump; they will be asked how they can support a racist, a misogynist and a foreign-policy ignoramus.
In short, it is very possible that McCain and Rubio would have won their primaries in slightly less dramatic terms but set themselves up for easier general-election races had they opposed Trump. Moreover, they could have bolstered their own reputations and maybe that of the party had they stood up to the most unfit man ever to win the Republican presidential nomination. Once again, it seems even pro-immigration reformers put too much stock in the talk-radio version of the GOP, imagining that their anti-immigrant critics are much stronger than they actually are. You wonder what it will take for middle-of-the-road Republicans to ignore the screeching from a small minority in their party.
Ryan remains a slightly different case. His support for Trump has been premised on the notion that the speaker’s refusal to endorse the party’s nominee would have caused a schism in the party, imperiled pro-Trump Republicans and put his speakership at risk. We’ve never bought into the rationale. Saying “I cannot in good conscience support Trump, but I respect my members who do” logically should not put those pro-Trump members at risk. They mostly hail from strong red enclaves and their continued support of Trump in “defiance” of the speaker would probably have been a plus. Meanwhile, Ryan could have given cover to the anti-Trump members who include some of the most vulnerable Republicans in competitive districts. As for his speakership, some in the Freedom Caucus are still planning a revolt. You cannot win with those people.
McCain is a war hero and an esteemed U.S. senator. Ryan is a respected wonk. Both have long records of accomplishment for the party. They are both, however, diminished by their refusal to stand up to Trump; had they set an example, they very well would in all likelihood have won their primary races, maintained their pristine reputations and helped guide the party away from a toxic association with Trump that will be hard, if not impossible, to shake.
As for Rubio, his post-presidential race behavior has been cringe-worthy, vacillating between support for Trump and aversion to Trump’s ludicrous positions and rhetoric (made worse by Rubio’s unwillingness to steer clear of TV interviews no matter how craven he appeared). On top of that came his decision to reverse course and seek another Senate term. Of the three, his embrace of Trump is the most damaging and the most unnecessary. He cemented his reputation for political skittishness and sacrificed his dignity and very well his future presidential aspirations so that he could run up the score in a primary he was always going to win. What a complete waste.