August is the weirdest month in politics.
In Shakespeare, a soothsayer warns Julius Caesar “Beware the Ides of March.” Of course, the “Ides” refers to March 15, the day of Caesar’s assassination. This signified great change, transforming Rome from a republic into the Roman Empire.
Transformative events unfold in and around Washington in August. Hence, a reason to “beware.” Not just on the “Ides,” but for all of August.
This August is already fantastical.
Donald Trump drew the wrath of the Khans. Trump told the Washington Post he’s “just not quite there yet” in supporting House Speaker Paul Ryan in his primary next Tuesday against challenger Paul Nehlen. Trump then dissed Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. McCain faces a competitive primary later this month. Both could encounter general election hurdles this fall.
Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., announced he’s voting for Hillary Clinton. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., informed CNN he won’t cast a ballot for Trump.
No one should be surprised. Most Augusts are punctuated by political and historic pivots.
The U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The U.S. has virtually been in Iraq ever since. President Nixon resigned after Watergate in August 1974. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., conducted his record 24 hour and 27 minute filibuster in August 1957. Hundreds of thousands of people massed on the National Mall to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963. Hurricane Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast in August 2005, forcing Congress back to session. A Democratic-led Congress hustled back into session amid the 1994 August recess to approve a crime bill. The move ultimately cost Democrats the support of the NRA and helped the party lose the House for the first time in decades. Multiple sitting and former lawmakers perished in August plane crashes over the years.
If those events aren’t seismic enough, try the real thing. A magnitude 5.8 earthquake shook Washington in August 2011.
It is truly astonishing that a Republican presidential nominee would refuse to endorse the sitting, GOP speaker of the House in his primary. Not many people were aware of Ryan’s primary next Tuesday against Paul Nehlen. But you can bet they know now.
A Ryan defeat qualifies as quintessential Ides of August fodder. No one takes primaries lightly after Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., stunned then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., in a 2014 primary (which was not in August). But the district represented by Cantor and Brat is fundamentally different than Ryan’s. Brat snuck up on Cantor. No one is sneaking up on Ryan – nor anyone else – after Cantor flamed out. Cantor didn’t take care of business back home and didn’t fit the district’s conservative tilt. Ryan’s district isn’t nearly as conservative. The district favors Republicans by just 2 percentage points. In 2012, Ryan won the district with 55 percent of the vote as he served as Mitt Romney’s running mate. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won Wisconsin. Plus, Trump’s anti-trade messages don’t resonate in the Badger State the way they might in Michigan or northern Ohio. Trade is vital to Wisconsin’s dairy and agriculture backbone.
A Ryan loss would mark a turning point. The GOP would have burned through former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Cantor and even House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., for the top job. A defeat resets the entire party. GOPers expected an internecine imbroglio last fall if Ryan didn’t accept the speaker’s job. Tensions would spike since – after McCarthy – Boehner lacked an obvious successor. If Ryan loses now, his speakership only delayed such a rhubarb.
But multiple GOP sources are extremely skeptical. In fact, the “bipartisan” nature of Ryan’s district could ultimately inoculate him from a primary defeat. It’s more likely the speaker could face trouble in a general election rather than a primary.
August also forces a focus on the Trump/Ryan relationship.
Ryan again erected a rhetorical buffer between his own views on Muslims and what Trump was said about the Khans. One wonders if the speaker is willing to continue supporting Trump – while still dropping caveats when Trump crosses a line.
It’s kind of like the scene in “A Few Good Men.” Demi Moore’s character objects to a decision by the judge. Then she renews her objection. Exasperated, Moore says she “strenuously” objects.
Moore’s colleague scoffs: “I strenuously object? Is that how it works? Objection. Overruled. No. No. No. No. I strenuously object. Oh well, if you strenuously object, let me take a moment to reconsider.”
Can Ryan continue to strenuously object to Trump? A source close to Ryan notes that morals are important with the speaker. The source questioned how much more Ryan could tolerate from Trump.
So far, Ryan’s camp says the speaker is sticking with Trump.
There’s rumbling that Trump could potentially suppress GOP turnout. That could bolster Democratic chances to win seats in both bodies. A senior Republican source argued that Trump’s outbursts could actually help GOPers down the ballot. The source said Trump’s flare-ups give House and Senate Republicans a chance to contrast themselves as “sane” Republicans.
The fortune teller warned Caesar to “beware the Ides of March.” Caesar ignored the advice and look what happened.
Lawmakers would be wise not to make the same mistake in August.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.