Experts question strategy of Trump’s attacks on fellow Republicans

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures as he arrives to speak at a campaign rally, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016, in Ocala, Fla. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said Wednesday that he is “so disappointed in Congress” for not investigating Hillary Clinton’s email setup as secretary of state harder.

At a rally in Ocala, Florida, Trump repeated his allegation that the FBI investigation of Clinton’s emails was “rigged” and complained about people in Washington protecting each other.

As far as insults hurled at congressional Republicans by their own candidate for president this week go, it was pretty tame. A day earlier, he sent out a series of tweets attacking “weak and ineffective” House Speaker Paul Ryan and “foul-mouthed” Sen. John McCain.

At Wednesday’s rally, Trump also griped that Ryan did not congratulate him on his debate performance Sunday and suggested there is some kind of “sinister deal” going on.

According to CNN, Trump supporters on Capitol Hill told campaign manager Kellyanne Conway in a conference call Wednesday that Trump needs to lay off his attacks on Ryan and focus on his actual opponent.

Earlier Wednesday, Conway told ABC News that Republican lawmakers should stop “pussy-footing around” and decide once and for all whether they will support Trump.

The tension between Trump and his own party escalated over the weekend after a 2005 recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women was released Friday. McCain and many others rescinded their endorsements of Trump, and Ryan reportedly told House GOP members he would not campaign for Trump.

The defection by top Republicans comes as Trump attempts to halt the freefall of his poll numbers. He has dropped further behind Clinton in the weeks after the first presidential debate, weighed down by his insults of a former Miss Universe, the 2005 tape, and a second debate that polls show most voters say Clinton won.

Clinton’s campaign mocked Trump’s recent behavior Wednesday in a video titled “The final meltdown.”

While it would obviously be preferable for the Republican Party to be unified, Trump surrogate John Jay LaValle said the feud reinforces the campaign’s central message that he is an outsider taking on the establishment.

“Donald Trump has run this campaign as an agent of change and throughout the primary process, the Washington establishment did not support him, in fact worked very hard against him, so I don’t think these recent events will have a significant impact,” said LaValle, chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Party.

Polls have so far shown that the vast majority of GOP voters want their representatives to stand by Trump. LaValle said there is frustration among the base because they feel the Republican Congress has not done enough to obstruct Obama’s agenda and address issues they care about like illegal immigration.

He echoed Trump’s argument that Clinton’s actions are worse than Trump’s words, and he emphasized that each vote Trump loses moves Clinton one step closer to the White House.

“Every Republican who opposes Donald Trump is supporting Hillary Clinton…This is a binary choice,” he said.

If there is a strategy behind Trump’s tantrums, experts are skeptical that it will work.

“When you run against your own party, you typically lose because the other side wins,” said Audrey Haynes, an associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

David Andersen, assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University, noted that despite the anger Trump’s base feels, Republican voters are the ones who elected the Washington establishment.

“At this point, he can’t afford to alienate anybody, and particularly Republicans.”

He added that Trump may be doing what won primaries for him and excites the crowds at his rallies.

“I think his strategy here is he’s going with what he has seen works,” Andersen said.

Republican strategist David Payne sees parallels to Trump’s behavior in the primaries as well.

“Many times during the primary, he sensed slippage in his campaign approach and tried to pre-emptively issue blame,” he said. If Trump foresees a big loss in November, he may be laying the groundwork to blame Ryan and other Republican leaders for it.

Trump is preaching to existing passengers on the Trump Train with these latest attacks, though.

“He’s already won with the people who are angry with establishment Republicans,” Payne said. “The battle’s over. Why would you waste one more minute talking about it?”

However much Trump’s base enjoys watching him take shots at his fellow Republicans, that base is not nearly enough to get him elected.

“Rarely does a split party win the general election,” Haynes said. George W. Bush’s campaign succeeded by mobilizing partisans, but they relied on an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort. Trump does not have that kind of sophisticated operation to get people to the polls on Election Day.

One of the biggest drawbacks of Trump fighting his own party is that media coverage of the bizarre spectacle is drowning out reporting on scandals that could be damaging to Clinton. In press releases and speeches since Friday, Trump has tried to call attention to various revelations from the release of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails by WikiLeaks, but the attacks have not gotten much traction.

“If he really wants to win this election, he has to let the Clinton scandals keep pouring out…and then he has to give the public a message they can resonate with,” Andersen said.

If Trump had stayed silent, Tuesday could have been a good news day for him. However, the mainstream media was understandably drawn to his declaration that his “shackles” have come off and his attacks on Ryan and McCain, pushing stories about the WikiLeaks emails down deep into the rundown.

“Trump makes for more titillating television,” Haynes said. “He knows it, but he also doesn’t know when to quit.”

According to Payne, Trump should have just let the issue go after Ryan told members of Congress Monday to decide for themselves whether to continue supporting Trump. He sees no sense in prolonging the fight in public.

“It boggles the mind to think about, ‘Why is he doing this? Why is he wasting airtime and oxygen on this?’” he said.

Republicans who turned away from Trump after the recording was released Friday have faced a backlash from some Trump supporters in their districts. Tempting as it may be for Trump to keep hammering Ryan for disrespecting him, that tactic likely costs him more than it helps.

“In politics, you have to be careful about how many opponents you take on,” Payne said. “Right now, the only opponent he needs to worry about is Hillary Clinton and she’s beating him.”

The long-term effect of all of this discord on the Republican Party is difficult to predict.

“This may perversely have the effect of strengthening the party,” Andersen said. A schism has been growing since 2000 between a base focused on socially conservative issues and a leadership more concerned with economically conservative policies. The outcome of the election could lead the party to figure out exactly where it stands.

According to Payne, the impact on the party will depend on whether Trump loses and how bad the loss is. Defeat would lead to reexamination and potentially a repudiation of Trump’s approach.

“If Donald Trump thinks he has somehow changed the Republican Party, let’s wait until after the loss and see what that change is,” he said.

Haynes said Republican politicians who have turned on Trump appear to have concluded that four years of fighting a President Hillary Clinton is preferable to allowing President Trump to radically alter what the party stands for.

“Republicans in office have this calculation: ‘Hillary Clinton for four years will not destroy the Republican Party. She gives us the ‘devil’ we need for fundraising and we can scrutinize Bill closely and he gives us fundraising opportunities, too,’” she said.

LaValle, on the other hand, believes it would be disastrous if Clinton wins and continues the economic and foreign policies of the Obama administration.

“I’m certain that every Republican in this country is concerned about what Hillary Clinton has done, her corrupt nature and ineptness,” he said.

That common enemy should unite the party, he argued, and it should matter more than what Trump said to Billy Bush 11 years ago.

“It’s not about unpleasant words spoken a decade ago,” he said. “It’s about the future of the country.”

LaValle indicated that Trump will continue to promote his message of change and defend himself for the remaining weeks of the campaign, with or without support from Capitol Hill.

“At all times, Donald Trump has held himself out to be someone who is running as an agent of change and very intent on changing the direction of this country, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in the way of that change,” he said.

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