The Deafening Silence of the Republican Lambs

If you are one of the millions of Americans who believe that a dangerously unfit man is presently occupying the Oval Office, you are likely to be cheering the words of Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake. On Tuesday, having announced their respective retirements in 2018, the two Republicans were unsparing in their denunciations of the titular leader of their party.

President Donald Trump exhibits “a flagrant disregard for truth and decency,” Arizona’s Flake thundered from the Senate floor, denouncing “the coarseness of our leadership.” Trump’s conduct is “reckless, outrageous, and undignified,” Tennessee’s Corker charged earlier in the morning. “He is debasing our nation.”

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It is the kind of language that not so long ago—10 months ago, to be more precise—would have hit the capital like a meteor. Now, apart from celebratory op-ed pieces and chatter on cable and social media, it will likely have “all the impact of a snowflake upon the bosom of the Potomac,” to borrow a phrase from the late Senator Everett Dirksen.

Why the change? In part, it’s because Flake and Corker flung those words on their way out the door—a dramatic exit from an increasingly unfriendly gathering. Flake already had the distinction of having the weakest home-state approval rating of any member of the U.S. Senate; as he recognized in his statement, a primary challenge against him in 2018 would have been all but unwinnable. Corker, too, would’ve almost surely faced determined opposition from Trump supporters back home had he chosen to run again. Neither wields much influence outside of the Acela corridor, and the idea that their harsh words will trigger a wave of resistance to Trump from within the Congress is a fantasy.

But there’s a larger point here. Assume for a moment that Corker’s assertions about how the president is regarded on Capitol Hill are true—that there are, in fact, many within the Republican caucus who share Corker’s worry that Trump is unstable, ignorant of policy, and not to be trusted with the nuclear codes. If this is so, it is as if everyone in the GOP caucus knows the emperor has no clothes, but most praise his wardrobe while the only authentic judgments come from those on their way out the door.

Judged by standard political metrics, silence makes sense: Speak publicly about your doubts, and the president’s supporters—still a huge majority in your party—will turn on you; open fissures in the party, and the Republican agenda is threatened—goodbye, tax cuts; so long, judges.

So why speak out? If we’ve learned anything from the not-so-distant past, it’s that for political leaders, remaining silent while their words still have power can lead to a lifetime of regret.

Throughout the years when America’s commitment in Vietnam grew, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield warned privately and publicly of the danger of involvement. He consoled JFK in 1962 that optimistic reports from Indochina were illusory; in 1965, after the first big escalation in Vietnam, he told President Johnson in a blunt memo that the Vietnamese would see the U.S. as simply another colonial power, and no victory of any sort was possible. But Mansfield—widely regarded as the Senate’s most credible authority on all matters Asian—never took this argument to the point of openly breaking with his president in a public and forceful manner.

A quarter-century after Vietnam ended, an emotional Mansfield reckoned with his choices during an interview with journalist Don Oberdorfer: “I was walking a tightrope. I wanted to be heard. I’m second-guessing now … It was difficult. Maybe I walked that tight line incorrectly, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. … I could have been more vigorous, I could have adopted another kind of procedure, but just didn’t know what it was and I did the best I could under extremely difficult and delicate circumstances because of the institutional relationship between the Senate and the White House. … It’s something I’m not proud of.”

How might things have changed had he taken a more aggressive posture? What other outcomes awaited just beyond the horizon? Would President Johnson have listened? Would other fellow Democrats have followed Mansfield’s lead?

Similar questions arise thanks to Corker and Flake: Is there any sign that other Republican leaders will follow their lead? No, not really. Instead, we get hints glimmers of how GOP leaders feel, via House Speaker Paul Ryan’s clever, genteel repartee at the Al Smith dinner. Aides to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell regularly feed Washington reporters disparaging views of Trump—but only enough to singe, never burn, and certainly nothing that would imperil the party’s legislative priorities.

To think that those who will remain in power when Corker and Flake—and perhaps others—leave will give public voice to even their grimmest fears about the man in the Oval Office is a pipe dream.

Indeed, the more likely scenario is that the president’s most ardent supporters will be celebrating the angry words as the harmless words of fallen foes—welcoming their hatred as a badge of honor. And those Republicans who remain in office will see the fallout as a cautionary signal of the cost of acknowledging the dangers that their President presents. Let’s hope we never have to learn the cost of the silence of these Republican lambs.

Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.