The crisis in the Republican campaign created by the release of Donald Trump's 2005 remarks is almost, but not quite, without precedent in American history. Twice before, a candidate on the national ticket has faced potentially devastating revelations subsequent to his nomination, leading to speculation that he might be dropped from the ticket. Both times those candidates found the necessary response, and both not only remained on the ticket but won election and went on to greater glory. Tonight Donald Trump has his chance to do the same, but it is hard to see, based on these examples, exactly how he might manage a similar escape.
In 1884 the Re[publican Party had won the last six presidential elections, largely because so many voters associated the Democrats with secession and the losing side of the Civil War. The Democrats had only narrowly lost the elections of 1876 and 1880, however, and in 1884, they they seemed poised for victory. The Republicans had nominated a party stalwart, James G. Blaine of Maine, who had demonstrated great ability as a nator and Secretary of State, but who had also been caught red-handed taking money to advance the cause of a railroad in the southwest, becoming a symbol of the political corruption of the age. The Demorrats already had their slogan--"Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from teh State of Maine"--and by late summer they thought they had the right candidate, Grover Cleveland, the Governor of New York. Cleveland was a very freshly minted politician, a former mayor of Buffalo now in the midst of his first term in Albany, but he had fought machine politicians at every step and looked like the perfect alternative to the corrupt, well-established Blaine, whose resume is not entirely dissimilar to Hillary Clinton's. Some weeks after Cleveland's nomination, however, a bombshell dropped in Cleveland's home city. A bachelor, Cleveland was revealed to have acknowledged the paternity of an illegitimate child born to a widow, Maria Halpin, some years earlier. The child, interestingly enough, had been christened Oscar Folsom Cleveland--and Oscar Folsom had been Cleveland's very married law partner at the time, suggesting that Cleveland might have chosen to protect a friend. Democrats were initially devastated, but Cleveland immediately told party leaders simply to "tell the truth." Yes, he said, he might have been the father, but others might have been as well. The revelation set off a national debate about the sexual options of unmarried men, with Mark Twain weighing in on Cleveland's side. At length a Democrat found the proper answer to the Repblicans: Blaine, whose private life was blameless, should be returned to private life, while Cleveland, the impeccably honest public servant, should ascend to higher office. The Democrats went boldly forth into battle, but the Republicans had their slogan too: "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!" The campaign was, until this year, probably the dirtiest in American history, but Cleveland narrowly prevailed and went on to two non-consecutive terms in the White House.
The second candidate to face such a crisis in mid-campaign was Richard Nixon in 1952, when Nixon, a 39-year old Senator from California, was running for the vice presidency with General Dwight Eisenhower. Given the unpopularity of the incumbent Democratic administration because of the Korean War, they seemed destined for victory. Midway through the campaign, however, the New York Post revealed that Nixon had received $16,000 for his own use--much of it for travel expenses to and from California--from wealthy Republican contributors. Given that the corruption of the Truman Administration was one of the major themes of the Republican campaign, this was a serious accusation, and a leading Republican newspaper asked him to resign. Eisenhower's entourage seemed to share that wish.
Nixon instinctively fought back, blaming the enemies who would never forgive him for unmasking the Communist spy Alger Hiss. He refused to quit the ticket, and was given a chance to explain himself to the American people in a televised address. Nixon was now fighting on death ground, where Sun Tzu says men fight best. He delivered the famous Checkers speech, laying his family's finances bare in great detail with his wife at his side, and telling the families of American veterans like himself that he was just another struggling young man with a family like them, not a profiteer. The Republican National Committee was deluged with telegrams in his favor, and he stayed on the ticket. The rest, as they say, is history.
Trump this evening cannot, like Cleveland, "tell the truth," and he cannot, like Nixon, convince his fellow citizens that he is really just one of them. His best move is the one Bill Clinton should have made twenty years ago: to refuse to discuss these personal issues at all and stick to the issues. It is at least equally likely, however, that he will double down and reply with an attack on Bill and Hillary Clinton. Statements by leading Republicans now leave no doubt that they would get rid of him if they could figure out a way to do so, and Mike Pence would make a formidable opponent for Hillary at this late stage. But many ballots have already been cast for Trump, and many more have been printed. Today's papers report that there is no way to force him off the ticket--he would have to quit, he is just as unlikely to do that as either Nixon or his current opponent. This time it seems unlikely that the candidate will escape. There will be time later on to discuss what this means.