Of all of the outdated conceits in American politics, none has proved more worthless and counterproductive in 2016 than the once-hallowed endorsement, especially when it comes to Donald Trump .
Otherwise reasonable Republican senators have made fools of themselves, or maybe just fools of their constituents, by “supporting” Trump but not endorsing him. Or are they endorsing him but not supporting him? It’s hard to tell when they jump into a senators-only elevator faster than a reporter can ask a follow-up question.
Poor Paul Ryan just wants to talk about poverty, but he has spent the better part of the last month not endorsing Trump and then endorsing Trump and then calling a Wisconsin radio station last week to make sure people know he doesn’t agree with every hateful thing Trump says. Is that supposed to make the endorsement of the Speaker of the House count for more or less?
A few members of the House and Senate have wholeheartedly endorsed Trump , and they really seem to mean it. Sen. Jeff Sessions is on the Trump train . He’s helping develop Trump’s policy positions and has warned the rest of the GOP that they need to get with the program, too, if they don’t want to go the way of the dinosaurs and Jeb Bush.
But why do endorsements exist anymore at all? They clearly no longer carry any weight with voters. Marco Rubio rounded up reams of endorsements from governors, senators and congressmen and nobody cared. Trump, on the other hand, had almost no official endorsements during the Republican primary which only telegraphed to his supporters that he was all the more trustworthy for being outside the good graces of the party establishment.
When Congress has a 13 percent approval rating , it’s logical to assume 87 percent of people don’t want voting advice from any member of Congress, and the other 13 percent aren’t paying much attention anyway.
If anyone benefits from an endorsement these days, it’s usually the person doing the endorsing. California Gov. Jerry Brown was finally welcomed back into Clinton-land this week after decades in exile for having the gall to run against Bill Clinton for president back in the day and then refusing to get behind the man he called “the prince of sleaze.” His act of penance was endorsing Hillary. Will Brown’s endorsement get even one Golden State Berniac over to Hillary’s side? What do you think?
The real, but less obvious, payoff of most endorsements is that they usually come with strings attached, sometimes with an actual payoff. When Rick Santorum dropped out of the GOP race in 2012, he wanted commitments from Mitt Romney on the RNC platform. Before Newt Gingrich got on board , he wanted help retiring his campaign debt. Ryan has said he didn’t get any promises from Trump, but he alluded to Trump’s support for his agenda in his Tweet endorsing Trump last week. “I’m confident he will help turn the House GOP agenda into laws,” Ryan wrote.
But maybe instead of giving an endorsement, Ryan should have gotten a deal. Why not unveil a concrete commitment from Trump to sign a tax reform deal instead of an insincere stamp of approval that has to be walked back and qualified every time Trump offends Ryan’s sensibilities?
Ironically, even though endorsements add almost no value in a campaign, not endorsing a candidate has been curiously elevated to a public rejection of another man’s character. Any Republican who chooses not to endorse Trump at this point should probably take cover and definitely avoid Twitter. I’m not sure what ethnicity Sen. Ben Sasse has in his background, but I’m sure we’ll find out soon, since he’s one of the few Trump holdouts . “Goofy Ben Sasse is NORWEGIAN, so of course he hates me. PATHETIC!”
Why bother with endorsements or non-endorsements at all? Americans have shown they are more than capable of making up their own minds , especially this election cycle. They’re also sophisticated enough to understand that just because Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump share the same party, they don’t share the same brain and they clearly don’t share the same heart.
Whether we give the endorsement a death with dignity by politely ignoring it or a swift blow to the head by just refusing to engage in the fakery, it’s time to put the endorsement out of its misery, or at least out of ours. It’s the most meaningless gesture left in American politics. And if Trump gets to change the rules of American politics this year, why can’t we?
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy