Politics & Policy

Conservatives to Trump: ‘You May Have Won the Nomination, but You Haven’t Closed the Deal’

Trump speaks at a rally in Fresno, Calif. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
What we love about America is more important than the presidency.

Thank God for David French.

As anyone familiar with David’s character, career, and oeuvre knows, there are about a million reasons to utter that sentence. But I offer thanks today for his public consideration of an independent run for the presidency. It’s a very American thing to do — or at least it would be in pre-Obama America.

Allow me to explain myself before the inevitable fusillade from Donald Trump’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later (if ever) legions — the trolls who may make it even harder for reluctant conservatives to board the Trump Train than does the Donald himself.

I expect to vote for Trump in November. As I’ve previously conceded, this is not exactly a momentous concession: I live in New Jersey, which is going to be carried by the Democratic nominee regardless of whom I vote for or whether I vote at all. As National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru wisely observes, the probability that any of our votes will determine the winner of the 2016 election “cannot meaningfully be distinguished from zero.”

More significantly, however, I intend to do everything in my (admittedly limited) power to help Donald Trump arrive at policies that promote American national security and prosperity. I hope that can be done in a cordial, if wary, alliance. That is, notwithstanding my skepticism, I hope Trump’s conservative supporters are correct that Trump is no longer the by-the-numbers left-leaning Democrat he was for so many years. I hope that he really has made a conversion, that conservatives really can have a mutually advantageous relationship with him.

Yet, I am not banking on the Road to Damascus — especially for a rider who vacillates between wanting nothing to do with Syria and salting the earth beneath it. I am perfectly prepared to provide help of the adversarial “tough love” variety. After all, what we really love and want the best for is the United States. The presidency is an important means toward that end, but it is not the end itself.

What we really love and want the best for is the United States. The presidency is an important means toward that end, but it is not the end itself.

We have lost this crucial distinction in the Age of Obama. Maybe that is because we’ve fallen for the cult of personality — a bit of conventional wisdom I doubt since Obama’s alleged charisma has always been lost on me in a way that Bill Clinton’s never was. More likely, it owes to the Left’s hardball race-bating and class warfare, which so intimidate Obama’s opposition. Either way, the fact is: The country is not a mirror image of its president.

Back in 2008, when Rush Limbaugh caught bipartisan flak for saying he hoped President Obama would fail, he was rightly hitting on this wrongheaded conflation. If we love the United States as it is, and a president comes into office vowing to “fundamentally transform” the United States, we should all hope he fails. Our first priority must be for the country to succeed. Because the president is the official with the most power to affect the nation’s prospects, we should wish for the president’s personal success only insofar as it manifests commitment to the preservation of the Constitution and the faithful execution of the laws.

In Faithless Execution, I contended that the genius of our constitutional system is that, while we ardently hope to elect presidents of sterling character and judgment, we do not depend on doing so. The framers bequeathed to us a system based on divided authority and political accountability. It relies less on the probity than on the self-interest of public officials: If they overstep their bounds and tread on the authority of other branches and/or the states, the offended actors will expose the misconduct and use their competing powers to correct it. Because the public is theoretically invested in the preservation of constitutional governance, officials who act lawlessly will be punished politically. The arrangement gives everyone a strong incentive to do what is right for the country even if they would otherwise incline to self-dealing.

This explains why the Republican party is in shambles and why Trump emerged. Our constitutional system succeeds only if presidential overreach is combated by vigorous congressional opposition. GOP apologists in conservative media contend that there was such opposition — i.e., that once Republicans took control of one and then both houses of Congress, Obama’s agenda stalled. This is at once untrue and woefully insufficient.

Yes, Obama’s agenda slowed after the first two years when Democrats controlled Congress. Since then, legislative help has been more grudging. Nevertheless, Republicans enacted legislation that helped the president double the national debt and consummate the Iran deal. And when not overtly approving other agenda items (including amnesty for illegal immigrants, amendments to Obamacare, stripping due-process rights on the campus, and radical intrusions into the spheres of marriage, community development, and sex roles), Republicans covertly supported Obama by fully funding his controversial executive orders and rogue executive departments — all the while confirming the overwhelming majority of his judicial, executive, and administrative-agency appointments.

More than half of the public wants this agenda opposed, and opposition would be broader if Republicans aggressively made the counter-case rather than going along to get along. This is what has angered Americans, and Trump, a skilled populist, has masterfully exploited the anger.

Trump is not Obama, though. Nor are willful, disciplined Democrats anything like pliant Republicans. Trump could very well win the election — he has repeatedly made fools of those of us who dismissed his candidacy as a lark and assured ourselves that he could not win the Republican nomination. But he cannot win the election without conservative support. And he would have a miserable one-term (or shorter) presidency without conservative alliances. Democrats would oppose him with an eye toward replacing him in 2020, and they would impeach him if he gave them half the chance — with Republicans joining in, despite their insistence that impeachment of Obama’s lawless underlings, never mind the lawless president himself, was out of the question.

I will be #Never anyone who will continue the Obama transformation, which means most Democrats I can think of.

So I give thanks for David French, and for Bill Kristol, who has taken plenty of incoming fire for pushing an independent Republican bid for the presidency. No, I don’t think this independent bid has a chance of winning the White House. But I do think David’s consideration of it sends a powerful message to Donald Trump: “You may have won the nomination, but you haven’t closed the deal. We’re already skeptical of your conversion, and we still want the Republican party to be the conservative party. We’d like to see the Democrats lose, but whether you win is less important to us than how you would govern. If you pivot to the left (as many of us suspect you will), we will not be along for the ride — and then you will lose. That’s fine with us because, if we have to deal with a wolf anyway, we’d rather it came as a wolf than clothed as one of us.”

Oh, and about that wolf. Most of the Republican rationalizations for supporting Trump are strategically flawed. It is common for Trump doubters to throw up their hands and say, “I’m not #NeverTrump because I’m #NeverHillary.” But what if Hillary is not the Democratic nominee? As we have noted this week, Mrs. Clinton’s troubles are mounting. Her polls are tanking: She is virtually tied with Trump nationally, there is a 50–50 chance she will suffer a humiliating loss to Bernie Sanders in the California primary, and a public sense is cementing that she is incorrigibly dishonest and may be guilty of serious crimes. If the FBI recommends that she be prosecuted, or if Democrats otherwise conclude that she could well lose a race against Trump they believe they should win, she could be pushed aside.

Let’s say you’ve been justifying your reluctant support for Trump by telling yourself, “Hillary is a crook. She broke the law on the e-mails. She compromised our national security. No matter how bad Trump is, she’s worse.” Okay . . . but what if the Democrats dump her and nominate Joe Biden? He is not a crook. He hasn’t broken any laws that we know of, much less exposed national-defense secrets to hostile foreign powers. What then? Isn’t the logic of your position that you’d abandon Trump if the Democrats came up with someone less corrupt?

Well, I forced myself to shed my comfortable #NeverHillary shell and answer that question. Turns out I’m #NeverBiden, too. And, honestly, I will be #Never anyone who will continue the Obama transformation, which means most Democrats I can think of.

So I’m willing, with all due donning of sackcloth and ashes, to vote for Donald Trump. I’ll even try to help persuade him to do the right things for the country. Because it is about the country, not about any personality. And when the country is working as it was designed to work, it has an ingenious way of nudging wayward personalities to do the right things.

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