Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes.
Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes
-- “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” from the Tony award winning Broadway musical “Avenue Q”
Congressional Republicans might not be capable of directly measuring their tolerance of Donald Trump. But there is certainly a metric that helps them gauge the amount.
Most Republicans have gone along grudgingly with Trump -- if they support the presumptive presidential nominee at all. Some of those lawmakers are now reviewing that political quotient as they wonder what Trump might say next.
They ponder how many more times they’ll have to condemn Trump’s remarks. They ask themselves if they’ll again have to awkwardly criticize Trump’s comments about a judge or women or Muslims -- yet reaffirm allegiance to him in the next breath.
Only Trump knows what lies in his heart when it comes to race, ethnicity and religion. But some of his comments give people pause and perhaps make them think of the lyrics in the Avenue Q tune. No, Trump doesn’t “go around committing hate crimes.” But his comments certainly sound “a little bit racist” to some and “a lotta bit racist” to others.
House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, says he’ll vote for Trump. But he adds that Trump needs to alter his rhetoric. And if Trump keeps it up?
“It causes a lot of us to think,” Sessions responded.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune, South Dakota, said Trump’s “going to have to adapt. … This is not working for him.”
This has been an unconventional election year because it flips political norms on their ear. But political capital still exists and isn’t unlimited.
Republicans cannot repeatedly find themselves crossways with the top of their ticket, blasting Trump’s provocative language yet failing to disavow that person and their ideals. Political capital is fungible, and some of Republicans could see their own stock plunge if they are linked too closely to Trump.
“I’m not going to be sucked into talking about Trump 24/7,” protested Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, when asked about the Trump’s views that federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel is incapable of fairly adjudicating a lawsuit involving Trump University because he is “Mexican.”
Never mind that Curiel was born in Indiana to Hispanic parents.
Cornyn says Republicans should focus instead on policy and the issues. But try as they might, the GOP fights a powerful political news vacuum that insists on focusing on Trump and his missteps “24/7.”
At the Senate Republican leadership press conference Tuesday afternoon, just outside the Senate chamber, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke about plans to finish a defense bill this week (which didn’t happen).
The leader mentioned opioid and energy measures. Cornyn then spoke about defense and North Korea. Thune cited the Iran nuclear deal and ISIS. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, discussed the economy and job numbers.
And then reporters ignored the leadership boilerplate and asked four consecutive questions about Trump.
“I’m going to let you all try one more time,” beseeched an exasperated McConnell to the press corps.
Naturally, journalists fired a fifth sidewinder interrogative at McConnell about Trump’s invective “overshadowing” the GOP agenda and the ability of Congress to legislate.
“OK. I’m going to wrap it up with this,” huffed McConnell, who turned his ire on Trump. “It’s time to quit attacking various people that you competed with or various minority groups in the country and get on message. He has an opportunity to do that. This election is eminently winnable.”
McConnell left the scribes with a parting shot.
“We’re all anxious to hear what he might say next,” said the Kentucky Republican.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., didn’t fare much better when he spoke Tuesday in inner-city Washington at an event rolling out the GOP’s anti-poverty plan.
Naturally, the first question focused on Trump, forcing the speaker to characterize the remarks about Curiel as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”
One Republican lawmaker hit the ceiling with Trump earlier in the week.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., faces perhaps the most-challenging re-election campaign of any GOP senator this fall.
Kirk this week dropped his support for Trump. He said the first-time candidate and billionaire businessman “has not demonstrated the temperament necessary to be president.”
Kirk also said he wouldn’t support Hillary Clinton for president. When asked who he might back, Kirk initially said “no one” before quickly adding he would “write-in David Petraeus.”
Trump then published a statement that failed to extinguish the flames on the Curiel comments. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., doesn’t support Trump. The new statement vexed the senator.
“This is a new level,” Flake said. “He needs to retract.”
A reporter asked Flake whether he thought Trump had sufficiently “walked back” the Curiel remarks.
“Keep walking,” replied Flake, sounding like a pitchman for Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
Not all congressional Republicans are able or willing to tell Trump to take a hike.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., says Trump would throttle Clinton in his district on eastern Long Island. Zeldin wants reporters to focus on the issues and not Trump’s words.
“It’s a disservice for any presidential campaign and those following it who is not doing a deep dive on substantive issues,” argued Zeldin.
But it was Zeldin who found himself crossways in a CNN interview about his own word choice.
“You can easily argue that the president of the United States is a racist with his policies and rhetoric,” he said.
When confronted by reporters in a congressional hallway the next day, Zeldin wanted to revert to substantive issues.
“There’s a lot more to this presidential race then just analyzing what the most provocative thing of the day was said,” Zeldin said.
Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., defended Trump when reporters asked whether the candidate’s statements disqualified him for president.
“Absolutely not,” he answered.
Reporters pressed Perdue on whether Trump’s comments could wound him with voters.
“People back home aren’t worried about that,” said Perdue, noting that he disagreed with Trump’s “tonality.”
Tone is indeed an issue for Trump. And as McConnell and even Zeldin suggested, so is substance.
After the weekly Capitol Hill huddle of the pro-Trump caucus Thursday morning, Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., remarked that Trump would “be on message on policy.
He’s going to take the fight to Hillary Clinton.” Collins also asserted “we’re going to be disciplined.”
Exiting the same session, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said that Trump was now playing ball in “a much tougher league.”
“You’ve got to be more careful and you’ve got to think through
what you’re going to say,” he said.
Within hours, Trump reverted to name-calling. He upbraided Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and called her “Pocahontas,” referring to a 2012 dispute about whether she has Native American roots.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, had an idea on how to fix things for Trump.
“You folks in the media need to give him a little more leeway,” suggested Hatch, third in line to the presidency as the Senate’s resident pro tempore.
Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., isn’t supporting Trump. He argues there’s a limited threshold for how much political capital some GOPers are willing to burn if Trump continues the trash talk.
“If he keeps doing this he’s really dishonoring that support,” Graham said.
That’s the political risk Trump poses to his own supporters -- especially in Republicans in Congress.
Lawmakers don’t want the public to perceive them like someone out of Avenue Q. As the song goes, no one’s going around “committing hate crimes.”
But if Trump continues the rhetoric, lawmakers worry voters could label Republicans “a little bit racist.”