Politics & Policy

After Trump, Conservatives Must Continue to Explore Their Options

(Jim Bourg/Reuters)

It’s been my great good fortune to know many patriotic Americans, a goodly number but by no means all of them conservatives, who are now supporters of Donald Trump. Similarly, many of my friends and allies in the conservative movement are immovably #NeverTrump. There is significant infighting between these camps. How can it be that people for whom the national interest remains paramount find themselves at loggerheads, after fighting shoulder to shoulder for decades against anti-Americanism and cultural decline?

The occasion for posing this question is my close encounter with the intensity of the rupture. Yesterday, I published on the Corner a post in support of exploring an independent candidacy for the presidency, a bid that could provide a credible alternative to both Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, and Hillary Clinton, who is certain to be the Democrats’ standard-bearer. What was most baffling about the negative reaction I got from some friends, colleagues, and readers — ranging from disappointment to white-hot anger — is that we are in basic agreement about priorities. It’s not like we’re not playing for the same team anymore. The bitter disagreement is about how to achieve the main objective.

And what is the objective? At this point, it is to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming president of the United States. For most of us — those who reluctantly realize we must confront the strong possibility of defeat — there is also a corollary: to minimize the amount of damage Mrs. Clinton could do if she wins.

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Interestingly, few of my pro-Trump correspondents see the objective as electing Trump for the good that he would do for the country. The case for Trump is that elections, as the estimable John Bolton put it in a recent interview, present a “binary choice.” The main attraction of Trump, for those who are attracted, is the belief that he stands the best chance of defeating Clinton.

While Trump has his fans, he troubles most conservatives — to put it mildly. That is because records matter more than late-life conversions, proclaimed with varying amounts of conviction and coherence. On his record, Donald Trump is a left-wing Democrat, whose newfangled conservatism is suspect. He is a deal-maker, whose positions, regardless of the fervor with which they are announced, are best understood as the start of a negotiation — endlessly elastic.

On his record, Donald Trump is a left-wing Democrat, whose newfangled conservatism is suspect.

That said, the two principal objections of my correspondents are: (a) Clinton’s election would be assured by an independent bid — which many refer to as a “third party” candidacy, even though what I’ve endorsed is a run by an independent Republican (the distinction is significant for reasons I’ll get to); and (b) an independent bid is just a scheme to sneak a GOP-establishment operative into the White House against the will of the voters, who overwhelmingly rejected the establishment in the primaries.

These are the two objections I anticipated in my post. All I can do is elaborate on what I’ve said.

First, I would support only an independent bid that has a decent chance to succeed — either in getting the 270 electoral votes needed to win or, more likely, denying that Electoral College majority to any candidate, which would throw the election into the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. There, Clinton would stand the least chance of winning. If an independent bid lacked the capacity to compete realistically with the major parties, or lacked a candidate who could attract a competitive coalition, I would throw up my hands and vote for Trump. I am not trying to spare myself or anyone else the stark choice of Trump v. Clinton if that’s what we are realistically down to. I do not need a third option as a symbolic gesture so I can con myself into believing I haven’t helped elect Hillary. (In fact, I live in New Jersey, which will vote for the Democrat regardless of whom I vote for, or whether I vote at all.)

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Second, I am not trolling for the Republican establishment. I doubt that any writer at National Review has been harder on the Republican establishment than I have. That said, and as observed here before, while “Republican establishment” is a useful term, it can also be abused. A party has to have leadership and direction, so the existence of an “establishment” is not a bad thing per se. Moreover, a major party in a two-party system is not and should not be monolithic, so the fact that Republicans have disagreements — and that lots of them disagree with me on various policies or tactics — does not mean one side of these disagreements is always the pejorative “establishment.”

At the risk of overgeneralization, I see the intramural fight in the party as between principled conservatives (who do not always agree among themselves) and Republican operatives who want to move the party in a politically progressive, Washington-centric direction — either for ideological reasons or, more often, because they think that’s how elections are won and power is amassed. I believe conservatives want to try to move the voters toward us; what’s commonly called the “establishment” wants to move the party to where it thinks the voters are in order to maintain power in Washington. My side thinks the Republican party should be a conservative vehicle; the other side thinks the Republican party should be a “pragmatic” vehicle with a conservative veneer — its main job being to win elections and control the spoils.

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That is a longwinded backdrop to what I tried to convey in yesterday’s post. I would not support an independent bid unless it advanced principled conservatism. I also believe it is obvious that the party apparatus I regard as the “establishment” is now lining up with Donald Trump. On that score, I applaud House Speaker Paul Ryan, with whom I have my disagreements, for withholding support from Trump, thereby making it easier for House conservatives to do so, in an effort to draw concrete assurances from Trump that could assuage some conservative concerns about his candidacy.

#share#Let me explain why I think my dissenting correspondents have it wrong.

I believe that Trump is a very weak candidate. To be sure, he has vanquished a crowded and talented field of candidates. But the crowded field also worked to his advantage; he might well have lost if the opposition against him were more focused from the start, and if detractors had taken his candidacy more seriously, mounting a concerted attack before he gained momentum. (I plead guilty on the latter fault.) In any event, Trump has arrived at the finish line with only plurality support from Republicans (he will probably end up with majority support now that he is unopposed in the last several primaries). He has won most impressively in states Republicans have no chance of carrying in the fall. Indeed, in his most impressive win, his home state of New York, each of Clinton and Bernie Sanders won significantly more votes in the Democratic primary than Trump did among Republicans. In November, Trump will be crushed in the Empire State.

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Trump is weak enough to be the first GOP nominee in 40 years for whom the prospect of a contested convention was very real (though it has now been avoided). That is before Democrats spend $2 billion to destroy him, exploiting the embarrassment of opposition-research riches he has racked up over the years.

There are striking numbers of Republicans who will not support Trump for both ideological and temperamental reasons. It is true that Democrats are not enthused about Hillary Clinton; but in presidential-election years (as opposed to midterms), they are more apt than Republicans to turn out and vote in order to maintain power, even if not enthralled by the party’s nominee. There will be a falloff from Obama’s vote hauls, but not much of one — Clinton will probably attract fewer votes than Obama did in 2012 (and far fewer than Obama’s high-water 2008 mark), but the decrease will not be nearly enough to offset GOP defections.

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A catastrophic Trump loss will cost Republicans control of the Senate and quite possibly the House. I have been a harsh critic of the GOP-controlled Congress’s failure to fight many battles that should have been fought, and of their acquiescence in Obama’s imperial lawlessness and runaway spending. As my friend Charlie Cooke observes, however, it would be foolish to deny that the Left is able to do more damage when Democrats control the White House and Congress than when Republicans hold at least part of the latter. My contention that Republicans could be a much more effective opposition than they’ve been does not mean it makes no difference who runs Congress.

A President Hillary Clinton in partnership with a Democratic-controlled Congress would be the worst of all outcomes. I believe it is the most likely outcome of a Trump candidacy. The nub of my disagreement with my correspondents is their conceit that Trump will be a strong candidate. I simply don’t see it . . . nor am I moved by their attempts to paper over Trump’s innate unattractiveness, which is patent, by claiming that the real problem is those of us who don’t want to rally behind a left-wing Democrat of unsavory character. He’s got his own record to thank for that.

A credible campaign by a third candidate would give anti-Trump Republicans a reason to come to the polls.

A credible campaign by a third candidate would give anti-Trump Republicans a reason to come to the polls. That is why it must be a bid by an independent Republican, not just a third-party run. The Libertarian and Constitution parties have some commendable elements, but they part company with conservative Republicans in salient ways and would not attract many disgruntled GOP voters. An independent conservative Republican bid could conceivably attract enough support to win states and, crucially, help elect conservative Republicans in down-ballot congressional races.

While getting to 270 electoral votes is very unlikely, the independent bid could prevent other candidates from getting to 270. If the election is decided by the House, Trump or the independent Republican could win, but Clinton would not. Meantime, the independent bid could increase the chance of maintaining a Congress that could thwart a President Clinton or keep a President Trump in check.

Finally, it bears repeating that an independent bid has a steep climb to be credible at this late stage. I believe it is very much worth exploring, but my eyes are wide open — it may not be plausible. A fitting candidate may not emerge.

#related#Still, for those of us who oppose Donald Trump but are not implacably #NeverTrump, there is a benefit in making the effort. It would put pressure on Trump to prove to us that, if elected, he would be accompanied by a strong vice president; would surround himself with sound advisers who are up to the serious financial, national-security, and rule-of-law challenges we face; and would appoint principled constitutionalists to the federal courts and throughout the executive bureaucracy. Erstwhile detractors who are now racing to hop aboard the Trump bandwagon without wresting concessions are making a mistake. They should read The Art of the Deal; for now, they are just earning its author’s contempt.

Many of us will never be comfortable with the prospect of Donald Trump as president. But elections are not about being comfortable, they are about choosing between the available options. Mr. Trump could make that choice easier by giving us assurances about who would be in a Trump administration and where they would try to take the country. Particularly in the absence of such assurances, we should keep exploring our options.


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