The Art of the Duck

GOP senators should copy Trump's playbook and say what they think

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania is among the Republican incumbents being put on the spot about their support for the party's standard-bearer Donald Trump. (CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania is among the Republican incumbents being put on the spot about their support for the party's standard-bearer Donald Trump. (CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 11, 2016 at 2:50pm

For a group of people who love to talk, Republican senators have been curiously quiet since Donald Trump became their party’s likely nominee for president. Will they endorse him? Do they agree with him? Will they be at his convention? The press wanted to know last week, but senators, for the most part, weren’t talking.  

But with the Senate back in session Monday, reporters were impossible to avoid, especially in the Capitol during votes. They were waiting at the tops of escalators and at the bottom of staircases, in a pack outside the party lunches, and in a mob by the Ohio Clock . Looking for any way to avoid talking about Trump, senators’ evasion tactics ranged from the basic duck to Houdini-level escapes.    

Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey told a scrum to read his op-ed in the Sunday paper to find out what he thinks about Trump (spoiler alert: He’s still waiting to decide) and then hopped onto a senators-only elevator.   Illinois Sen. Mark S. Kirk seemed to use an aide as a human shield to avoid questions. “We’re not doing any Trump questions today,” the aide told reporters.  

[Related: What’s a Vulnerable Republican To Do?]

Other senators, too polite or distracted to escape the media pack, sought refuge in language alone. “Trump” seemed to be verboten for most, but “the nominee” was getting lots of support.   

When asked if he’s endorsing Trump, Georgia’s Johnny Isakson said he’s supporting the GOP ticket and endorsing himself for Senate in November.  Apparently understanding the farce of it all, he joked, “I need laryngitis as quick as I can get it,” as the Trump questions kept coming.  

[Related: Republicans on Trump Visit: We Don’t Want to Talk About It]

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri told reporters to call his office to see what he thinks about the Donald (he’s supporting the nominee), and added with obvious frustration that he was considering a moratorium on all Trump questions in the Capitol building after being asked again and again whether he’s going to the convention in July.   

Last week, Kelly Ayotte twisted the I’m-not-against-him-but-I’m-not-for-him concept so tightly that gleeful Democrats coined her phrasing the “Full Ayotte.” “Kelly plans to support the nominee,” a campaign spokeswoman told Roll Call last week. “But as a candidate herself she hasn’t and isn’t planning to endorse anyone this cycle.” Got that? Read it twice if you have to, I certainly did.  

The only Republican seeking the spotlight in the Senate on Tuesday seemed to be Ted Cruz , fresh off the campaign trail but apparently not through with the campaign, who held a press gaggle in front of his Senate office to tell dozens of swarming reporters that the voters still have time to decide whom they’ll support for president. It seemed to mean Cruz needed more time to recover after Trump floated the idea last week that Cruz’s dad was involved in the JFK assassination.     

[Related: Welcome Back to the Senate, Ted Cruz!]

Excluding Cruz, the dilemma for all of the senators above is obvious.  They’re all up for re-election in battleground states on a ticket with Trump, a man who oscillates between wild-eyed lunacy and homegrown populism. Which Trump is going to top the ticket in November? Who knows? But instead of denouncing Trump, like Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska  or embracing him like Alabama’s Jeff Sessions , the candidate-incumbents are trying to get the upside of a Trump nomination (Hey look! I’m loyal, plus Trump’s winning in Ohio!), without the downside of a potential Trump blowout. The problem is there’s no way to know which side is which until Election Day.  

[Related: White House Eschews T-Word]

If Trump has taught anyone anything useful this election cycle , it’s that Americans really are sick to death of politicians, the artful dodgers who have risen through the ranks by saying the very least possible to get the very most in return. “Am I for it? Are you? Do I support Trump? Do you?”
If Republicans want to win over the Trump crowd without appropriating the Trump crazy , they should rip a page out of Trump’s playbook and tell people what they really think, even if what they think changes the very next day. Changing your mind is human, but hiding your opinion is politics, and this year, everybody hates politics.
As much as Democrats are enjoying the Trump spectacle Republicans are dealing with today, they shouldn’t get too comfortable either. One of their own won’t quit winning primary elections against their preferred nominee, and the Clintons always seem to have one or two secrets nobody knew about. Reporters will want to talk about all of that at the bottom of the elevator too.       

[Related: Hillary Clinton Is Too Big to Fail]

The new normal has arrived, my friends. Donald Trump has ushered in the era of “authenticity,” a version of honesty, if not transparency. Voters can now smell a dodge from a mile away and they don’t like it anymore.    

So wait for the next elevator and tell people how you really feel. Voters deserve at least that, and the election is too far away for the entire six months to be duck season.  

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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