Witcover: GOP adrift in the era of Trump

The Republican Party now approaches its lowest ebb since the Watergate fiasco of the early 1970s, having been devastated in the midterm congressional elections by the Democrats, who will take over the U.S. House of Representatives on January 3.

Subpoenas will begin flying at the Trump White House from Democratic-led committees over the alleged conspiracy with the Russians in the 2016 election, as well as those relating to other criminal activities by the president and his henchmen now being revealed by Special Counsel Mueller and other investigators.

In a weak retaliation of sorts, lame-duck House GOP leaders recalled former FBI Director James Comey for more testimony behind closed doors. All that came out of this desperate move was yet another rehashing of Hillary Clinton's email server scandal.

As for President Trump, he ludicrously dismissed the damaging information against him gleaned from the federal court reports charging his campaign manager Paul Manafort and legal fixer Michael Cohen with lying to protect him.

Mr. Trump's immediate reaction was to tweet: "Totally vindicated. Thank you!" It was preposterous in light of the implications drawing him deeper into the quagmire of deception and criminality revealed in the two federal inquiries. Mr. Trump's upbeat facade was in keeping with his practice of seeing the latest ugly duckling as a gorgeous swan.

The question for the Republican Party now is whether the shadow of its once proud conservative establishment has the will and means to salvage itself, faced with Mr. Trump's eventual collapse under severe legal fire.

The Republican congressional leadership, including retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, remains in supine surrender. One of the few Republican officeholders of stature standing up to Mr. Trump right now is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another lame-duck of uncertain favor within the party's ranks.

In his long and effective service of 18 years in the House before his current eight-year governorship, Mr. Kasich developed and outlasted a reputation as an acerbic and often contrarian firecracker. He has since emerged as a persuasive middle-road figure with guts conspicuously lacking in his fellow party members.

Mr. Kasich has not yet committed to challenging Mr. Trump in 2020, but the party could do worse than accept him if no other more appealing regular should emerge to oppose the raging bull in the Oval Office who is on a certain path to destroy it.

Two Republican U.S. senators who have been vocal in the anti-Trump resistance, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, announced their retirements from the Senate, confronted with likely defeat for re-election in their heavily conservative and pro-Trump states. But neither has yet signaled that he will oppose the president in 2020.

Nor has Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who also has been notably critical of Mr. Trump. Veteran Republican operative William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, is reported to have formed a nonprofit group, "Defending Democracy Together." It aims to resist Mr. Trump's assault on the rule of law and on conservative articles of faith such as free trade.

Last month, Mr. Kasich ventured to New Hampshire, the site of the traditional first presidential primaries, where he ran second to Mr. Trump in 2016. Mr. Flake also has visited the Granite State, where he told attendees at a political dinner that Mr. Trump "needed" a primary challenge but stopped short of volunteering for the mission.

A University of New Hampshire poll in August found 56 percent support among Republicans there for Mr. Trump, with about 20 percent for someone else not listed and 24 percent not sure. Tom Rath, a former state attorney general and longtime Mitt Romney supporter, has offered that any successful challenger to Mr. Trump would have to be specific in his opposition, that "it's not enough to simply say he's kind of a crazy guy and I'm a nice guy."

In any event, it's indisputable now that the brand of the Grand Old Party is tarnished as never before, thanks to the outsider political novice who has hijacked it.

Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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