Throughout American history, there are pivotal moments where a leader of one of the two major parties rises up to put conscience and moral principles over party loyalty.
One such moment for the Republican Party occurred on June 1, 1950.
Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, the only woman in the U.S. Senate and a conservative Republican, took the floor of the U.S. Senate four months after Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) accused the State Department of harboring communists in an infamous speech given in Wheeling, W.Va.
Although McCarthy was a friend, Smith denounced him and his reckless attacks and smears — the first Republican brave enough to do so. At the end of her speech, she introduced her famous “Declaration of Conscience” resolution, co-sponsored by six other GOP senators. In her speech, she repudiated McCarthy by saying: “I don’t like the way the Senate has been made a rendezvous for vilification, for selfish political gain at the sacrifice of individual reputations and national unity.”
Another such moment is upon us as a result of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. And the most important member of Congress in the best position to follow in Sen. Smith’s historic footsteps is the Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (Wis.).
I disagree with Ryan’s conservative policies strongly. But I, along with most Democratic members of Congress I know, respect him for his civility, his decency and his moral principles.
Ryan exhibited these traits last March, when Trump refused to immediately repudiate the endorsement of his candidacy by Ku Klux Klan racist David Duke. “If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games,” the Speaker said. “They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices.”
Yet on June 2, Ryan decided to endorse Donald Trump for president. He did so despite the billionaire’s prior statements calling all undocumented Mexicans “rapists” and criminals; his call for a ban on all Muslims entering the country, strictly on the basis of their religion; and his ridiculing of Fox’s Megyn Kelly, after she asked him during a GOP presidential debate to explain his references to women he did not like as “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” and “disgusting animals.” Trump responded by saying “there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her whatever.”
Just five days later, on June 7, Ryan criticized Trump for challenging the impartiality of U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, in a case involving charges of fraud against the real estate tycoon’s “university,” because of the judge’s Mexican heritage.
“I regret those comments he made,” Ryan told the media at a press conference. “Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment. I think that should be absolutely disavowed.”
Trump has refused to disavow or apologize for his racist statement.
So why has the Speaker continued to support Trump for president despite the fact that Trump’s own words shown him to be racial and religious bigot and a misogynist? How can Ryan or any thoughtful American not express revulsion that the GOP standard-bearer chose to politically exploit the Orlando tragedy with boastful and demagogic bombast?
Over this past weekend, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee who chose Ryan to be his running mate, issued his own version of Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience,” announcing why he could never vote for Trump: “I don’t want to see a president of the United States saying things which change the character of the generations of Americans that are following. Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation, and trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny, all these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America.”
So, to Speaker Ryan and all thoughtful Republican conservatives everywhere, I suggest that you read Romney’s words carefully, as well as Margaret Chase Smith’s declaration, made almost exactly 66 years ago this month, and repudiate Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.
Some in your party might argue that you need to support Trump to save the Republican Party. But Romney has it right when he concluded exactly the opposite: You need to join him in opposing Trump to save not only the party but your own conscience.
Lanny Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is cofounder of the law firm of “Davis Goldberg & Galper PLLC”, and cofounder of the public relations firm “Trident DMG.” He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).