Does Trump deserve the “Sister Souljah” treatment?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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I’ve been scratching my head, wondering why Mitt Romney continues to tie himself to Donald Trump. (The obvious point is that Trump can help him raise money.) Otherwise, though, it makes no sense. If campaigns are about “winning the day” — admittedly a very myopic viewpoint — then how many weeks have been lost to discussing Trump and birtherism?

Romney, of course, is being pressured to repudiate him, and Byron York has some very smart thoughts on why that might be a mistake. Among the points York makes is that one of the reasons Romney is wary of such concessions “is that John McCain tried them, and they didn’t do him any good.” This is true — and it’s also true that conservatives are especially afraid Romney will follow McCain’s lead and (as they see it) unilaterally disarm (after all, you don’t see Obama apologizing for Bill Maher).

The theory is that casting aside Trump would embolden Romney’s enemies. This might be true. On the other hand, it might be a coup. It’s not as if this sort of maneuver hasn’t worked before — it has. Consider, for example, Bill Clinton’s repudiation of a rapper who made controversial remarks regarding blacks killing whites.

“This so-called ‘Sister Souljah moment’ — a calculated denunciation of an extremist position or special interest group,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi — “wrapped Clinton in a warm centrist glow just in time for the general election.”

Over at the New York TimesRoss Douthat seems to be arguing that Mitt Romney could get away with a similar maneuver today:

[B]ecause Trump’s highest goal is so transparently the perpetuation of his own celebrity, his latest attention-seeking stunt offers Romney an almost cost-free chance to repudiate a figure who’s notionally to his “right” (though in reality lacks any ideological commitment whatsoever) without risking any kind of sustained conservative revolt. Trump isn’t Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin: His conservatism is feigned, his right-wing fans are temporary admirers with no deep commitment to his brand or cause, and hardly anyone in the conservative media is likely to rise to his defense.

Taegan Goddard defines a “Sister Souljah moment” as “a strategy designed to signal to centrist voters to show that the politician is not beholden to traditional, and sometimes unpopular, interest groups associated with the party.”

This seems to be a textbook definition of what Douthat is proposing.

Matt K. Lewis