BEDFORD, N.H. — I don’t blame Senator Kelly Ayotte for declining to entertain my questions Wednesday morning.
She probably figured I would ask her about Donald Trump. And that means only pain. So, when I tried to buttonhole her after an event here, Ayotte shot a look at her staffer — get her away from me, it seemed to say — and strode away. The staffer said she had a call to make.
I almost feel sorry for Ayotte. Like many Republican politicians, she has spent this year tying herself in elaborate knots over the Republican presidential nominee as she faces a close race for reelection against Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan.
Ayotte, popular despite being out of step with her heavily pro-choice state, had tried the impossible, attempting to distance herself from Trump without alienating his supporters. She would vote for him, she said, but she wouldn’t endorse him. It was weakness personified, the worst of both worlds, winning her points for neither loyalty nor independence. When she criticized Trump, say, for his statements about the grieving parents of a fallen Marine, the nominee laid into her.
“I don’t know Kelly Ayotte,” he said in early August. “I know she’s given me no support. . . . We need loyal people in this country. . . . We don’t need weak people.”
Oof. Then, when Ayotte stood by Trump — saying in a debate last week that he would “absolutely” be a role model for children — she looked foolish. A few hours later, Ayotte interrupted the Democrats’ happy dance to reverse herself — excuse me, to say she misspoke — saying neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton is a role model.
It must have been exhausting, trying to make it all hang together. Like some other GOP pretzels, Ayotte was finally liberated by revelations that Trump had boasted of forcing himself on women. His falling poll numbers might have helped, too.
She won’t vote for him, she now says. Boasting of sexual assault was “fundamentally different” from his other transgressions. She wants her 12-year-old daughter to know she’d taken this stand, which is “more important than winning any election.”
Ayotte, it seems, is fine with her daughter knowing she was, until Friday, willing to vote for Trump in the face of his racism, misogyny, support for torture, tax dodging, and disregard for the constitution, to name just a few other inexcusable offenses.
That’s the way it has gone in the last few days, as Republicans who enabled the nominee for so long finally parted ways with him, pretending that Friday’s Trump was somehow different from Thursday’s.
US Senator John McCain, for one, had gritted his teeth and supported the man who mocks everything he stands for, including McCain himself. Until Trump gave him an out at last, and way too late. After House Speaker Paul Ryan said he’d stop campaigning with Trump, the orange oligarch’s fans heckled the speaker in his own state on Saturday. And he hadn’t even un-endorsed him. Another profile in courage, South Dakota Senator John Thune, called on Trump to step down on Saturday, deeming the nominee’s 2005 boasts about grabbing women’s genitals “the most offensive thing I’ve ever seen.” But hey, not offensive enough to dissuade him from voting for the guy. He’ll still be doing that. Some others have taken similarly wobbly stands. Political expediency is a powerful thing.
Then you have Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who are still supporting Trump, arguing that Clinton poses a far greater threat than the bully who personally and politically shamed them. More likely: They’re willing to sell their souls to avoid alienating Trumpkins as they look ahead to 2020.
Oh, the humiliation. But unless you’re one of the heroes — like Mitt Romney (Love you, Gov!) — who saw Trump for what he was from the start and said so, this sorry spectacle of faux courage and vacillation was always in the cards.
Compared to some of the other enablers recently reacquainted with their backbones, Ayotte is a moral giant. But they’re making giants small these days.