Politics & Policy

The Lincoln Project and John Kasich Lack the Credibility to Lead Never-Trump Republicans

Ohio Governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich speaks to the press in Concord, N.H., November 15, 2018. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
This is shallow opportunism.

There are honorable and honest ways to oppose your own party, and to leave it. As a conservative who took the Never-Trump path and voted for Evan McMullin in 2016, I will grant the good faith of a lot of lifelong Republicans and conservatives who believe that they must support Donald Trump’s opponent on the grounds that Trump is unfit for office. And people are entitled to change their minds about what they believe. But it is also important to be honest about what you’re doing, and to take responsibility for your own choices. Neither the Lincoln Project nor John Kasich is doing this.

The Not-Lincoln Project

First up, the “Lincoln Project,” a political action committee founded by three former Republican campaign consultants — Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, and John Weaver — and former Republican lawyer George Conway. You may know Schmidt mainly as John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager and for helming Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 reelection campaign as California governor. Weaver was instrumental in McCain’s 2000 campaign (the 2008 campaign only took off after ditching Weaver), and the 2012 Jon Huntsman and 2016 John Kasich campaigns. In between, he theatrically left the Republican Party once before over George W. Bush. His Huntsman and Kasich campaigns veered heavily into sneering-at-Republican-voters-for-media-plaudits territory. In 2019, Weaver registered as a foreign agent for a Russian state-owned energy company.

Still, these men are entitled to their view of Trump. They are entitled to their idiosyncratic strategy of running ads aimed primarily at getting Trump’s attention and trying to hurt his feelings so that he lashes out, rather than ads aimed primarily at persuading voters. They are perhaps less entitled to present themselves as disaffected Republicans while catering to a donor base of Democrats — much less the questionable, murky financial transactions that Steve Stampley’s piece this morning details.

Where the Lincoln Project leaves behind any pretense at being a Republican or conservative project at all is in concentrating its efforts heavily on mainstream, moderate, and otherwise very not-Trumpy Republican Senators — Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, Joni Ernst, Martha McSally, and Thom Tillis — and doing so mainly by running ads attacking them from the left, not the right. Some of these folks hold seats that, if won by the Democrats, would be extremely hard to win back. And if your claim is that Republicans need to be defeated to learn some sort of lesson, there is no evidence that burning down the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill by removing its more moderate and temperate members will make it less Trumpy. As I predicted in 2018, that was not the lesson taken by House Republicans from losing power, and it is not how the Republican Parties of California, Virginia, or New York have responded to losing power. What moderates the party is the need to pursue the building of majorities, not the experience of the wilderness, where performative rage is more lucrative.

Also, stocking the Senate with Democrats while Joe Biden builds a lead in the polls is a recipe for removing checks from the Democratic agenda rather than building checks on Trump. Does that concern the Lincoln Project? Quite the contrary. In an interview with the Washington Post’s left-wing writer Greg Sargent, Weaver not only pledges to support the Democrats’ election-law agenda after Biden’s election, but to demand that Republican senators back the Democratic policy agenda more broadly:

Will [the Lincoln Project] revert to a traditional GOP donor-friendly advocacy posture, one that drives opposition to the Democratic economic agenda? Or, as former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer somewhat jokingly predicted, the Lincoln Project will run “ads attacking President Biden for raising taxes on oil companies in early 2021.” “We’re not gonna do that,” Weaver told me. . . . Weaver insisted the group would actively work against Republicans who obstruct a Biden presidency. . . . “He will have a mandate to clean up the mess that Trump has created with the help of his enablers,” Weaver said of a Biden presidency. “That shouldn’t be held up. We intend to do all we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

I asked Weaver what the Lincoln Project would do if a President Biden and a Democratic Congress tried to raise taxes on the rich to help fund a multitrillion-dollar rescue effort. Weaver said he couldn’t directly address this until he saw specifics, but said: “We’ll be generally supportive of trying to get this country moving forward.” . . . “We will not stand on the sidelines if an attempt to bind the wounds is held up,” Weaver told me. “We plan on participating in that debate.”

The absolute last person who would ever have taken this approach is Abraham Lincoln. Yes, Lincoln’s presidency was the product of a time period when his original party (the Whigs) unraveled and was replaced by a more principled party (the Republicans). This is what some of the Lincoln Project folks say they would like to see. But it is where the similarity ends. In 1848, the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor for president. While parallels between Taylor and Trump are overstated, Taylor was a political novice of vague political principles, and because he was a large-scale Louisiana slaveholder who would not campaign against slavery, Charles Sumner and other “Conscience Whigs” refused to support Taylor. The Conscience Whigs were, in 2016 terms, Never Taylor. Lincoln didn’t join them. He and William Seward, later his secretary of state, both remained faithful Whigs and stumped for Taylor against Lewis Cass, a northerner running on a “popular sovereignty” platform more favorable to the expansion of slavery. As it turned out, Taylor in office was much more hostile to the pro-slavery Democrats than anticipated — like Trump, he was politically radicalized by partisan opposition — and grew to detest his former son-in-law Jefferson Davis.

In fact, Lincoln would be one of the last Whigs to abandon his party; only when it was clearly no longer a useable vehicle for pursuing his causes did he turn to the Republicans. The Republican coalition he built in 1860 was constructed on standing together to do common things; Lincoln was careful to make room in his tent for anyone who agreed with him, even slaveholders and former anti-immigrant Know-Nothings. He did not hold personal political grudges. In 1854, as the Whigs were unraveling, Lincoln was arguing that the best defense against expanding slavery into the territories was to defend the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, even with all of their flaws (including the Fugitive Slave Law). He gave a speech in Peoria in October 1854 arguing that those who wished to preserve the Union should work together and not turn up their noses at standing with people they otherwise disagreed with — so long as they stood together on issues of agreement:

Some men, mostly Whigs, who condemn the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, nevertheless hesitate to go for its restoration, lest they be thrown in company with the abolitionist. Will they allow me as an old Whig to tell them good humoredly, that I think this is very silly? Stand with anybody that stands RIGHT. Stand with him while he is right and PART with him when he goes wrong. Stand WITH the abolitionist in restoring the Missouri Compromise; and stand AGAINST him when he attempts to repeal the fugitive slave law. In the latter case you stand with the southern disunionist. What of that? you are still right. In both cases you are right. In both cases you oppose the dangerous extremes. In both you stand on middle ground and hold the ship level and steady. In both you are national and nothing less than national. This is good old Whig ground. To desert such ground, because of any company, is to be less than a Whig — less than a man — less than an American.

You can take this stance and argue for working with Democrats on common issue ground, and you can take it and argue for working with Democrats to remove Donald Trump from the White House. But you cannot take the Lincoln stance and argue for getting rid of Republican senators just because of whom they have stood with before. You cannot take the Lincoln stance and demand that Republican senators must work with Democrats to do things they do not believe in, just to strengthen the Democratic Party. Lincoln, who spent 1857 and 1858 arguing for defiance of the Dred Scott decision, would never have demanded that Republican senators give James Buchanan or Stephen Douglas a blank check in office.

Charles Sumner might be a better historical model than Lincoln. Sumner’s anti-slavery principles before the Civil War, and his pro-civil-rights principles after it, were genuinely admirable. His political judgment was not. Sumner’s most influential success was getting a South Carolina Democrat so enraged by personal insults that the congressman beat Sumner to a pulp on the Senate floor in 1856. In 1872, Sumner would re-enact his Conscience Whig days by breaking with the Republican Party to support Horace Greeley (another ex-Republican) running to oust Ulysses S. Grant from office. Sumner had his causes: He was a critic of the corruption of the Grant administration and had led a successful fight against Grant’s plan to annex the Dominican Republic. Sumner declared that the Republican Party was “becoming the instrument of one man and his personal will” and that Grant must be opposed to avoid subordinating the nation and party to “the personal pretensions of one man”:

I protest against him as radically unfit for the Presidential office, being…without aptitude for civil duties, and without knowledge of republican institutions, — all of which is perfectly apparent, unless we are ready to . . . boldly declare that nepotism in a President is nothing, that gift-taking with repayment in official patronage is nothing, that violation of the Constitution and of International and Municipal Law is nothing, that indignity to the African race is nothing, that quarrel with political associates is nothing, and that all his Presidential pretensions in their motley aggregation, being a new Cæsarism or personal government, are nothing. But if these are all nothing, then is the Republican Party nothing, nor is there any safeguard for Republican Institutions . . .

But Sumner and Greeley, by going Never Grant, were taking sides with the enemies of Reconstruction. Sumner’s old friend Frederick Douglass, deeply pained by Sumner’s abandonment, campaigned for Grant, and swore that he’d blow his brains out before switching parties: “If as a class we are slighted by the Republican Party, as a class we are murdered by the Democratic Party.” Had Greeley won, the policy consequences would have been the exact opposite of everything Sumner once stood for.

Donald Trump is even less like Ulysses S. Grant than he is like Zachary Taylor, of course. But Frederick Douglass, like Lincoln, understood what Sumner never did: Personal quarrels are no substitute for remaining focused on the goals at the end of your political party and movement. Anyone pledging to elect Democrats in the Senate and support a Democratic agenda even after Trump is gone is simply a Democrat and owns everything that comes with that.

John Kasich’s Courage

Next up is John Kasich, the former two-term Republican governor of Ohio and nine-term Republican congressman, who is reportedly planning to speak at the 2020 Democratic convention. Kasich’s opposition to Trump in 2016 was a textbook example of what a failure of political courage looks like. Hardly anyone has less credibility in criticizing Trump today.

We hear a lot about political courage, usually from media voices equating it with both Republican and Democratic politicians doing whatever it is liberals and progressives happen to want at a particular moment. In the Trump era, courage has usually been framed as a demand that Republicans and conservatives engage in unsleeping vocal condemnation of Trump in all things at all times.

Realistically, there are two types of political courage. One is the courage of the gadfly, standing alone on an unpopular position to keep it alive. That is surely not Kasich, who is standing up now to speak in favor of a man leading by double digits in the most recent polls.

The other is the courage to make a difference: not standing up a pointless suicide charge, but throwing all your weight behind a cause at the critical moment when victory is possible, but not assured. Lincoln himself was a master of this, leading the nation again and again on causes that were hard but doable with enough courage. The moment for Kasich to stand up was not the 2020 general election, or even the 2020 primary (which he sat out), but the 2018 Senate race (which he sat out) and, most particularly, the 2016 primary.

What did he do then, when there was still a large, active sentiment among Republican and conservative voters to stop Trump — large enough that 60 percent of Republican primary voters cast ballots against Trump in contested primaries through Indiana on May 3? Kasich did everything possible to prevent those voters from coming together behind a single anti-Trump candidate. He was not the only one, of course: Jeb Bush should have dropped out by Labor Day rather than pouring out oceans of money attacking Marco Rubio, Rubio should have packed it in no later than his March 5 wipeout in Kansas, Chris Christie should not have whiffed on his chance to attack Trump over Atlantic City at the first debate, and Ted Cruz should not have waited so long to criticize Trump. But no decision was so obviously self-interested and destructive of the anti-Trump effort than Kasich staying in the race throughout the primaries. He could, and should, have bailed out after finishing 19 points back in New Hampshire, much as Huntsman did in 2012. As I’ve noted before, outside of Ohio, Vermont, and D.C., Kasich was a consistent flop, always below 30 percent of the vote: In the other 31 contests through Wisconsin he cleared 20 percent in just one other state (Michigan). He finished in single digits 19 times in 42 contests. He finished behind Ben Carson ten times in 15 tries. Staying in the race drained votes that Rubio or Cruz could have consolidated (especially in Virginia). When Rubio told people to strategically vote Kasich in Ohio, Kasich refused to reciprocate. This all made sense only if he was playing to be a power broker at a brokered convention, but staying in the race all the way to Indiana — then dropping as soon as Cruz gave up the stop-Trump ghost — prevented one.

It was not just Kasich’s strategic choices: Over and over, even when Rubio and Cruz were going hard after Trump, Kasich refused to attack Trump on the debate stage. Go back and watch the GOP debates from February and March 2016 if you don’t believe me and see how often Kasich even talks about Trump. The simple interpretation, as with his strategy, is that Kasich was either hoping to cut a deal with Trump or, at any rate, prioritize stopping the movement-conservative alternatives (Cruz and Rubio) over stopping Trump.

There is very little we have seen from Trump in office that should have surprised anyone about his character after the 2016 campaign; if anything, the biggest surprise has been that he kept his promise to appoint conservative judges and has pursued a more conventionally Republican agenda than what he campaigned on. If Kasich really believed that Trump’s character and fitness for office were a problem, he could have run a campaign dedicated to warning about that when he had the chance. Even to this day, he seems never to have regretted his choices in 2016.

What we see instead, now, reeks of shallow opportunism. Out of office two years, not running for anything in 2018 or 2020, Kasich has run out of ways to remain in the spotlight or proximity to power except this one. He will speak on the last platform available to him. Courage, this is not.

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