John Danforth Wants to Play the Hero. But His Partisanship Got Us Into This Mess

Aug 28, 2017 at 9:18 am
John Danforth wants you to know he’s very concerned about this Trump fellow.

Last week, the former U.S. senator called Trump the “most divisive president in our history.” Opining in the Washington Post, Danforth encouraged his fellow Republicans to dissociate themselves from Trump, comparing him to the segregationist George Wallace.

Pundit Mark Halperin declared the op-ed “extraordinary.” In fact, it was a perfectly ordinary example of Danforth taking a safe position within the soft sheets of a major newspaper’s opinion page. For all the attention the op-ed received, Danforth stops short of calling for Trump to be removed from office. Describing his party as “now in peril,” Danforth expresses more concern about the damage Trump may do to the Republican brand than the republic itself.

Danforth cultivates an image as a high-minded statesman. If your dad’s a Democrat or an independent, Danforth is probably his favorite Republican. “What America needs is politicians who hold things together,” he said at an event this summer honoring his service.

He did not specify that one needed to be Republican to be the glue of liberty. But Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, gives the impression that he would not endorse Christ himself if the Nazarene ran as a Democrat.

Look at the record. In 2005, Danforth wrote an op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the Republican Party for becoming “the political arm of conservative Christians.” The op-ed drew heaps of praise. Danforth even got a book deal out of it.

But then Danforth supported the Senate campaign of Jim Talent, a Newt Gingrich minion with a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition. During the campaign, Talent played to the party’s base and opposed a statewide ballot measure protecting stem cell research. Danforth supported the ballot initiative and even appeared in a campaign commercial. Talent got his check anyway.

Danforth is always clutching pearls over the direction his party is taking. In 2010, he said Republicans were “beyond redemption” if they failed to support Dick Lugar, the U.S. senator from Indiana (Lugar ended up losing his primary challenge). In 2012, Danforth said he felt embarrassed watching the Republican presidential candidates debate. In 2015, he wagged a finger at the Republicans who bullied his protege Tom Schweich.

But as an election approaches, a zombie spell falls over Danforth and he endorses virtually anyone with an “R” next to his or her name. It matters not if the candidate shares his ideals about decency and compromise. When the alternative is a Democrat, even a goblin like Ed Martin gets the kiss of approval from St. Jack.

Partisanship is a hard habit to break. What’s maddening about Danforth is that he recognizes its dark power. “What can we do to restore a political center capable of reconciling the polar differences of politics—capable of solving problems, not just winning elections?” he asked in his 2006 book Faith and Politics.

Yet winning elections appears to matter a great deal to Danforth. Witness the letter he recently co-signed encouraging Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley to run against U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill.

In the short time he has held elected office, Hawley has joined in partisan challenges of Obama Administration rules, promised to kick Planned Parenthood in the shins and dog-whistled about “religious liberty.” In short, he talks and acts like every young Republican meathead. Maybe there’s more to Hawley than meets the eye. He’s sure handsome. In any case, Danforth is eager to whisk him to D.C., calling him a “once-in-a-generation political talent.”

The timing of the Run, Josh, Run! letter was impeccable. Blaming Senate Democrats for everything that’s wrong in Washington, it arrived at the very moment Mitch McConnell was trying to ram through a health-care bill without holding a single hearing.

At times, Danforth recognizes that what he calls “broken politics” is mainly a function of his party’s dysfunction. Just as often, he pulls a bookcase of false equivalence on top of himself. He’s equated Fox News and Ted Cruz with MSNBC and Elizabeth Warren. After the election, he told Mark Reardon of KMOX there was “a lot of blame to go around,” putting Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment on the same shelf as Trump’s hatred and stupidity.

Clinton is more like Danforth than he would care to admit. Both are mainline Protestants with similar views about the role of religion in public life. Both are institutionalists who believe in an engaged foreign policy.

But Danforth could not stand the idea of Clinton becoming president. Before Trump secured the Republican nomination, Danforth said he shared his fellow Republicans’ “intense desire to defeat Hillary Clinton.”

Fulfilling the desire meant elevating a malignant narcissist to the presidency. Now that the uncouth man occupies the office, Danforth has come forward to share his Grave Concerns.

Danforth should have seen this coming. He should have known last summer that voting Hillary Clinton was the right thing to do. He should have said so, even if meant sneers at the next Lincoln Day dinner.

But stopping Trump would have meant putting country before party. For Danforth and others like him, it was too much to ask.

David Martin is a writer in the Kansas City area. The Riverfront Times welcomes concise essays on topics of local interest. Contact Sarah Fenske at [email protected]