Georgia GOP wrestles with ‘ifs’ of Trump’s candidacy

AUGUSTA — The central question of the 2016 campaign wafted through the halls of the Georgia GOP Convention last weekend as distinctly as the conditioned air: Is it more important to think like a Republican or to vote like one?

There’s no doing both this year. Donald Trump has donated to Democrats, praised single-payer health care, advocated higher taxes on the middle class in the form of tariffs — and that’s the short list. He flies the Republican standard as a flag of convenience.

Still, a month after the field cleared for Trump, the Georgia Republicans assembled in Augusta still seemed at pains to reconcile themselves to him.

Not all of them, of course. There was plenty of Trump enthusiasm to be found among the delegates. But others were more circumspect. Some of them simply referred to backing “the nominee.” Many opted for elision, playing up the problems wrought by the Obama presidency and the potential for worse from Hillary Clinton in lieu of forceful arguments for Trump himself.

Even one of Trump’s most vocal supporters within the Georgia GOP establishment, Sen. David Perdue, who paired a red “Make America Great Again” hat with his own “outsider” jean jacket, sounded less than fully sold on Trump as Trump.

“I don’t know if he’s conservative or not,” Perdue told a group of Young Republicans, “but I know he’s more conservative than Hillary Clinton.”

And: “If Donald Trump’s not conservative enough for you, fine, get over it. He’s more conservative than Hillary Clinton.”

After all, he flies the flag. Right?

The most popular refrain was the need to keep Clinton from appointing justices to the Supreme Court. There was near-universal agreement on this. Four years of Trump would have to be worth the decades of more favorable jurisprudence flowing from two, three, maybe four new justices, right? If, some folks cautioned, he actually sticks to his list of potential appointees.

“If” featured in a lot of conversations. If Trump’s elected, maybe he’ll work with policy-minded congressmen like Speaker Paul Ryan and Georgia’s Tom Price. If Trump loses, maybe the GOP brand won’t be too damaged. If Hillary were elected, it would be worse.

And: If Trump can’t find some discipline, then as George W. Bush once reportedly said, this sucker could go down.

That last one hung out there like vapor in the thick Augusta air. Before most delegates arrived, Trump attacked the judge in (two of) his Trump University civil fraud trials as having an “inherent conflict of interest” because he is “of Mexican heritage” and Trump advocates “building a wall” on the southern border. It was already embarrassing for the party. That was before Trump ordered surrogates to attack his critics as racists themselves, leading some prominent Republicans to walk back earlier support of Trump.

Talk of a a floor fight at the national convention in Cleveland is, at this point, fanciful. It would take a lot more than comments about a judge to upend the results of months of voting and caucusing.

But if Trump continues along the same trajectory, it’s easy to see a number of Republicans deciding they’d rather abstain in November.

If? Sorry, I meant “when.”