In response to Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said:
“This is not conservatism. What was proposed is not what this party stands for, and more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for. Not only are there many Muslims serving in our armed forces dying for this country, there are Muslims serving right here in the House, working every day to uphold and defend the Constitution. Some of our best and biggest allies in this struggle and fight against radical Islamic terror are Muslims. The vast, vast, vast, vast majority of whom are peaceful who believe in pluralism, freedom, democracy, individual rights.”
That is the perfect response, issued without rancor or moral equivocation. Those like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who lack the gumption to speak up, may endear themselves to some of Trump’s crowd, but they make it all the more difficult for others in the party to accept them.
Just a week after the candidates appeared at the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement rebuking Trump. The ADL’s chief executive, Jonathan Greenblatt, remarked:
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“In the Jewish community, we know all too well what can happen when a particular religious group is singled out for stereotyping and scapegoating. We also know that this country must not give into fear by turning its back on its fundamental values, even at a time of great crisis. As we have said so many times, to do otherwise signals to the terrorists that they are winning the battle against democracy and freedom.”
The same is true of many groups, whether or not their ancestors came here for religious freedom. Indeed, the episode reveals how slight is Cruz’s attachment to religious liberty, about which he pontificates at the drop of a hat. Asked about the most egregious sort of religious discrimination, he could not bring himself to utter even a mild rebuke.
Since Trump’s statements, veteran pundits have argued that none of this will hurt Trump, who has not been hurt by prior outrageous outbursts. To be certain, the people who say they support him (lower-class whites with less than a high school education) may still cheer for him, but it’s always been a question whether these people will show up at the polls. Now Trump — and, to some extent, Cruz — has chased away sincere people of faith (who find Trump’s stance obnoxious and frightening) and those outside the loose grouping the media call the tea party (the people in polling who show up as very conservative).
Henry Olsen, a respected GOP analyst, explains, “Trump’s statement (Monday) will likely hurt him with moderates and somewhat conservatives. This will first come by galvanizing opposition to him among those who strongly dislike him, but it should also decrease his appeal among those people who could support him but currently are not.” He recommends other candidates show “measured but firm condemnation of Trump’s policy without denouncing his backers or condemning the legitimate concerns people have about Islamic-inspired terrorism.”
A tea party candidate might win Iowa with only support of very conservative voters (as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum did), but it’s virtually impossible to win the nomination of a party that has a plurality of moderate and somewhat conservative voters. Trump and Cruz won’t lose their true believers, but they are putting a cap on their appeal. “Cruz is playing a very dangerous game,” warns Olsen. “He has always been very weak among moderates and somewhat conservatives, and he cannot win the nomination without winning the somewhat conservatives and getting a third or so of the moderates.” Sure, he might win over some Trump voters, but Olsen advises, “It also carries the risk that could both fail to win over Trump supporters on other grounds and alienate the remainder of the party who finds Trump and his views anathema.”
If Trump and Cruz are limiting their appeal, it will be up to another candidate to rally the rest of the party. In the House, we saw that the Sane Caucus (the huge majority backing Ryan) swamped the Freedom Caucus (nine of which voted against him as speaker). The GOP should hope the same sort of split exists in the primary electorate.