Call it the greatest balancing act of 2016.
Donald Trump’s meteoric rise has spawned perhaps the oddest trend of 2016: Republican officeholders, one after another, expressing their support for the party’s nominee while making all too clear that they won’t endorse him.
It’s become such a familiar sight—with Republican senators Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins, Ron Johnson, and Johnny Isakson among the hair-splitters—that many were initially confused by House speaker Paul Ryan’s recent announcement that he would, in fact, be supporting Trump. It was about as tepid as such declarations get, an op-ed whose first mention of Trump didn’t come until the tenth paragraph. “I’ll be voting for him this fall,” Ryan wrote. There was no explicit mention of an “endorsement.”
Twitter was quickly abuzz with the question: Had he, or hadn’t he?
“We’re not playing word games,” Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck tweeted, “feel free to call it an endorsement.”
Buck’s words were notable, bringing into sharp relief the ways in which many Republicans have attempted to placate both their constituents and their consciences when it comes to Trump. But can one really draw a meaningful distinction between “supporting” a candidate and “endorsing” him? Washingtonian posed the question to language gurus, political strategists, historians, and lawmakers. According to Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh, there may in fact be a meaningful distinction between the two. But whether Republicans have actually pulled off a groundbreaking feat of political nuance — or if it’s just a “cynical attempt to suck up to both sides of the civil war” — is “a question for political analysts,” Walsh says.
“I think stopping short of the word ‘endorse’ does carry some meaning. There’s clearly a difference between, ‘Here’s what I’m doing’ and ‘Here’s what I’m encouraging you to do,’” he continues. “But the open question is whether something else is in play, whether the person wants to get credit for both sides of the equation.”
It’s reasonable to define “support” as agreeing or approving of someone, and “endorse” as a public affirmation of that support. But to people who insist there’s a distinction between the two, to endorse a candidate implies something more ceremonious, such as a willingness to actively stump or fundraise for said candidate. “Republicans are genuinely torn. They know as party loyalists they should vote for Trump, but they don’t want to enthusiastically embrace him as a surrogate would,” Newt Gingrich says. “In other words, they don’t want to put on his T-shirt, but they don’t want to be against him either.”
That’s precisely the line Ayotte tried to straddle last month, after Trump all but clinched the GOP nomination following Ted Cruz’s exit from the race. “As she’s said from the beginning, Kelly plans to support the nominee,” said Ayotte spokeswoman Liz Johnson in a statement. “As a candidate herself, she hasn’t and isn’t planning to endorse anyone this cycle.”
Criticism erupted. Writing for New York magazine, Jonathan Chait called Ayotte’s position “exquisitely incomprehensible.” But some strategists maintain that it’s a valid way to distance oneself from Trump’s more repugnant antics. “There’s a distinction between blindly and wholly supporting a candidate, versus saying you’ll vote for him but that you have your own agenda,” says former Mitt Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. That distinction hasn’t been needed in the past, he says, because most Republican nominees have typically used “the same playbook.” But Trump’s “unorthodox” candidacy has given way to the maneuvering we see today from Republicans who are hoping to avoid answering for whichever controversy he’s stirred up on a given day.
I ask one GOP member if there’s a gap in principle between lawmakers in the support-but-not-endorse camp and others like Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who’s pledged to vote for a third-party candidate in November. “No,” says the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “I don’t think there’s anything principled about handing the election to Hillary Clinton. You don’t have to outrun the bear, just the camper standing next to you.” (Sasse declined to comment.)
There are only a few GOP senators left who’ve stayed mum altogether. A senior aide to one scoffs at the rhetorical “gimmick” so many others are employing. “Look, I get it,” the aide says. “It allows them to say, ‘I didn’t endorse him, so don’t expect me to comment on every asinine thing he’s said.’ They don’t want to feel responsible for his behavior.”
“’Calculating,’” is one word for that, the aide says. “Another is ‘spineless.’”
Whether the distinction is meaningful or not, there’s a question of what practical value it offers a candidate, if any. Indeed, barely 24 hours after Ayotte danced the dance, Democratic challenger Governor Maggie Hassan shot back in an interview with Manchester’s ABC affiliate: “I don’t know what that means,” Hassan said. “I don’t think anybody does.” John McCain has gotten even harsher treatment from challenger Ann Kirkpatrick for his own tepid support of Trump: Kirkpatrick was quoted by the AP as saying McCain “used to stand for something.”
Those attacks, according to GOP operative Doug Heye, reveal why there’s little upside to the rhetorical contortion. Either way, he says, a professed vote for Trump, however muted, is fodder for an effective attack ad. “Ultimately, it’s a distinction without a difference, because the opposing campaigns make sure there isn’t one.”
“A lot of people want to make clear that there are a lot of things that Trump has said that they’re uncomfortable with, and that’s a good thing to do,” Heye adds. “But in the meantime, the Clinton attack machine is going to make sure that any vulnerable Republican is going to get slammed, unless there’s an outright disavowal.”
The 2016 cycle has produced its fair share of political quandaries, with the coping mechanisms to match. As the dust settles post-November, which will be here to stay? The possibilities are plenty, but Walsh, the Washington Post copy editor, says it’s not fanciful to imagine the “non-endorsement endorsement” sticking around.
“It’s a strange year,” Walsh says. “I suppose it’s not surprising that strange phenomena would result.”