Before we move on from Montana, where Republican Greg Gianforte defeated Democrat Rob Quist on Thursday after Gianforte “body slammed” a journalist on election eve for asking him a policy question, it’s worth thinking about how our essentially binary elections work in the U.S.
A lot of people bashed Republican leaders for their mild reactions (or worse) to Gianforte’s thuggish behavior, and those Montana Republican voters who stuck with their candidate despite his actions. And Republicans deserve it – this isn’t an isolated incident, but of a piece with over 40 years of irresponsible and anti-democratic media bashing, from Spiro Agnew to Pat Buchanan to Bob Dole to Newt Gingrich. Donald Trump was less the candidate who invented running against the press than one who exploited the party’s history of merely hinting that it was the “enemy of the people.” Some Republican-aligned talk show hosts had been saying that for years.
However, I have a lot of sympathy for those partisan Republicans who swallowed hard in the face of what Gianforte did, realized it was wrong, and voted for him anyway (keeping in mind that 72 percent of the votes were cast early by mail). And, yes, for party leaders who decided to keep their mouths shut or, perhaps, condemn the act but not the candidate, in the closing hours of the election. And those who have done so from both parties in similar cases, at least once replacing a candidate on the ballot is no longer an option.
The truth is that when one’s party nominates a clown, a moron, someone prone to personal violence, or whatever other personal malady one might conjure up, that the party’s voters are left with an impossible choice. A Republican voter in Montana, even one who sees clearly that what Gianforte did was unacceptable, nevertheless knew that he would vote the “right” way down the line if he won, while Quist would have voted the other way on most major issues. And it’s certainly not crazy to care about those things; in fact, it’s well within the boundaries of political ethics to conclude that positions on public policies like abortion rights, gun rights, health care or tax policy outweigh even fairly important personal shortcomings.
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Lost in this intense period of national media attention is the simple fact that Montana voters were electing one of 435 members of the House. Whoever they selected would have done relatively little active governing before he comes up for re-election next year.
I’m not saying that voters should stick with their party’s candidate in these cases. Just that it’s a lose-lose choice, and I can’t blame voters for whatever they decide, or conclude from that decision that they are tolerating, in this case, violence against reporters. Unless, again, they specifically say that they are doing so (as some certainly did in chilling quotes reported on Thursday).
The clearest check against electing Gianforte again and electing future Gianfortes is to hold political parties responsible for the candidates they nominate. Party actors – the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, donors and activists, formal party officials and staff, and party-aligned groups and media who collectively have the largest say in what parties do – have a lot of ways to block the nomination of people who give their voters a lose-lose decision. They can recruit opponents to candidates who would make poor leaders; steer money and other resources away from unacceptable candidates and toward alternatives; and give forceful signals to voters that a candidate should not represent the party. And they remain responsible once they nominate and elect someone – so if Montana Republicans nominate Gianforte again in 2018, they certainly would be guilty of tolerating anti-democratic violence against journalists.
Of course Trump is the elephant in the room here. It’s a little different when voting for the party’s candidate involves (say) a commander-in-chief who appears to be incapable or unwilling to learn the basics of foreign and national security policy, or a president whose commitment to democracy doesn’t seem very strong. But even there, Republican voters were faced with an impossible choice, and it’s not entirely clear what they “should” have done.
The party actors who supported Trump’s nomination, or even passively allowed it to happen, deserve the harshest of judgments. Not only were they tolerating sexual assault allegations, bigotry, attacks on democratic norms, and a candidate who would likely be inept at the job if he happened to win; but they were forcing their own party into an impossible choice as the campaign continued. And they either knew it, or were abdicating their responsibility to know it.