This is supposed to be a happy occasion for Republicans and conservatives. The Republican Party, as an institution, has more top-to-bottom strength than it has had since the 1920s. The House of Representatives is now run by one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the ideas of our party and our movement. There is significant reason to be optimistic about the terrain in the coming presidential election, and our choices in this presidential season have included some remarkably talented and accomplished contenders, many of them stalwart conservatives.
And yet, there is a dark mood afoot among the party’s activists and online conservative commentators: a mood bordering on despair. And by despair I don’t mean hopelessness so much as surrender: a sense that even bothering to continue voting for Republicans, associating with the conservative movement, and arguing for conservative causes is a pointless waste of time. “I’m done with this,” “I’m staying home,” “I’ve had it with these people,” “This party deserves to lose,” “I’m never voting Republican again,” “If this is the conservative movement, I want out” – we’ve all seen comments like this in the past, but they seem especially common this year. Well, I’m here to tell you all: don’t despair. Don’t walk away. Don’t take your ball and go home. Stand your ground. Never give up. And never give in:
Despair seems to be everywhere on the Right these days, and it comes mainly in three opposing flavors (and I count myself to some extent in all three camps):
First, we have the anti-Trump people. A good number of these are the sorts of timid or moderate establishment-minded Republicans who get like this about any insurgent, but many others are ideological conservatives of longstanding commitment to the cause, people who have sweated and sacrificed and endured more than a little social or financial cost laboring in the vineyards for conservative policy, only to discover what seems to be a sudden madness even among old allies in favor of a European-style big-government nativist who was giving heaps of cash to leading liberal Democrats only yesterday, is espousing liberal political positions even today, and does everything in his power to pander to every liberal’s favorite stereotypes of why conservatives are terrible. If liberals were to design a Manchurian Candidate to destroy and discredit conservatism for good and ensure a permanent progressive hegemony, they would produce exactly what Donald Trump is and does. The anti-Trump crowd is very rationally concerned that Trump would and may destroy everything to which we have dedicated years of effort, and that at least some number of Trump’s supporters want this. This concern includes the fear that if we don’t nominate Trump, he will run third party out of spite.
And the concern extends well beyond Trump himself to his followers. The fact that every single liberal you encounter loves the Trump campaign only emphasizes this feeling that we belong to a movement that just wants to destroy itself for its enemies’ amusement. Even Jonah Goldberg, not typically given to this mood, has vented on this:
Well, if this is the conservative movement now, I guess you’re going to have to count me out…many of the same people we laughed at are now laughing at us because we are going ga-ga over our own celebrity…If I sound dismayed, it’s only because I am. Conservatives have spent more than 60 years arguing that ideas and character matter. That is the conservative movement I joined and dedicated my professional life to. And now, in a moment of passion, many of my comrades-in-arms are throwing it all away in a fit of pique. Because “Trump fights!”
…I am tempted to believe that Donald Trump’s biggest fans are not to be relied upon in the conservative cause. I have hope they will come to their senses. But it’s possible they won’t…I’m not leaving without a fight. If my side loses that fight, all I ask is you stop calling the Trumpian cargo cult “conservative” and maybe stop the movement long enough for me to get off.
Second, and at the opposite pole, we have the anti-Establishment crowd, in the extreme case the “burn it all down” crowd. Most of these are conservatives, but of varying stripes – small government conservatives, social conservatives, immigration hawks, people who vote Republican because they actually want Republicans to accomplish or even attempt some of the things they keep promising to do. What they have in common is a sense that voting Republican, and even electing Republicans, seems to produce nothing but permanent liberal victories punctuated by occasional temporary stalemates, with conservatives never gaining ground and often ceding it forever. Worn out from beating their heads against a wall, tired of being promised “tomorrow,” and “tomorrow,” and always “tomorrow,” these voters and activists and pundits are ready to just hire any candidate who will oppose the people who run the party, even if that means handing still more power to liberal-progressives; indeed, even if it means destroying every means of opposing liberal-progressives for decades. We get nothing? We may as well be honest about that. The anti-Establishment crowd hates Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and John Roberts and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and any number of our Presidential candidates and, increasingly, even many conservative magazines, blogs, think tanks and activist groups.
Third, we have the anti-Cruz crowd. Like the anti-Trump crowd, some of these are moderate and liberal Republicans and others on the non-GOP Right (libertarians, politically homeless ex-conservative-Democrats), while others are orthodox conservatives who just really, really want to win the next election. Some regard Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) as an opportunistic and unprincipled charlatan, but others (like me) just see him as the next Barry Goldwater, a guy who is selling an undistilled product to an unready public that hasn’t acquired a taste for it – and thus fear that Cruz is likely to set back the movement for years by losing a winnable election in the name of conservative purity. More than a few people in the anti-Cruz crowd would sincerely love to see a President of the United States who agreed with all the things Cruz says he stands for, but some doubt that he is really serious about them, others fear he would discredit those things by losing, and still others simply think the public will never go Full Cruz. Their ranks (as well as the anti-Establishment ranks of critics of Marco Rubio) include people openly contemplating staying home next November if that guy they dislike so much gets the nomination.
The Airing of Grievances
For my part: I hear you. I’ve been there. I’m sick of Trump-touting white supremacists, anonymous eggs and disposable accounts filling my Twitter with Trump propaganda and calling me a “cuckservative” (if you don’t know what that is, be thankful). I’m sick of reading polls and commentary with “Republican frontrunner Donald Trump,” and being mocked by liberals for having such a clown supported by our party. This is not what I signed up for when I first started voting Republican and writing conservative columns for my campus newspaper back in the late 1980s. It’s not what conservatives loyal to America’s founding principles – and Republicans loyal to the party’s founding principles – are about.
I’m also sick of feeling like the Congressional GOP is an untrained puppy that will poop on the rug every time you stop looking at it. I’m sick of seeing most of the really big cases at the Supreme Court deliver victories for the Democratic voter base handed over and signed by Justices appointed by Republican Presidents. I’m sick of us nominating Presidential candidates I have to hold my nose to vote for, or who can’t or won’t make the best case for our principles. And I’m sick of seeing our party mishandle the basic managerial competencies – from presidential-year turnout operations to legislative-agenda management – that party establishments are for.
And while I would love a White House that never lacks for a President like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), in the realistic setting of 2016, I am deeply concerned that picking Cruz over Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) would indeed run a serious risk of throwing away a golden opportunity, leading not only to four to eight more years of permanent liberal-progressive policy victories, but also to a long-term weakening of the position of principled conservatives within the GOP.
The Feats of Strength
But here’s the thing: I’m also a grownup. Being a grownup means you don’t give up just because today didn’t give you what you want. Being a grownup means you don’t run away from your commitments and your loyalties and your principles when they prove inconvenient or embarrassing or they seem to be on the losing side of things. Being a grownup means you understand and accept that as life goes on, the choices you make narrow your options and require you to give up some of your dreams if you’re serious about pursuing others. Being a grownup means you don’t get to run off on a lark or in a huff because other people are depending on you to stand your post. Being a grownup means you grasp that a team works best when everybody gets something instead of each member of the team demanding they get everything. But it also means accepting that if you don’t treat your fellow adults with respect, but rather like children who won’t notice that your words don’t match your deeds, sooner or later they’ll stop acting like adults who respect you. And sometimes, being a grownup means shaking your fist in the wind and refusing to be chased off your little piece of land, however humble it may be and however arrogant the aggressor. I didn’t leave New York City when Al Qaeda blew up my office. I’ll be damned if I’ll leave my party or my principles because of something Donald Trump said or something Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did.
And I am also a Christian, and the credo of Christians during Christmas season is one of hope and faith and humility. Hope, because the Lord has come among us and He promises the faithful that the things of this world are not to be feared. Faith, because He promises that we will be rewarded in the next life for our fidelity, even if we do not live to see the fruits of our labors in this one. And humility, because if God Himself can come among us as a defenseless child born in the feeding-trough of farm animals because the government demanded that his parents comply with ridiculous tax regulations, we can endure far lesser privations and not give in to the counsel of despair.
And really, there is hope. But it demands that (as Ben Franklin said) we all hang together, or else we will hang separately.
Keep Calm, It Won’t Be Trump
For the anti-Trump crowd, rejecting despair means rejecting the fear of Trump and getting up and making Trump not happen (while making some effort to retain the more reasonable of his followers). And he is not going to happen. I base that on four basic truths.
1. Early polls are still early polls, and national polls are still national polls. I know, I know, we’ve been saying this quite a while, and I won’t rehash all the data here. But just because it has taken a while for gravity to assert itself does not mean it never will. This far out from Iowa in 2012, we still had ahead of us time for Newt Gingrich to surge in Iowa, fall in Iowa, and be replaced when Rick Santorum surged in Iowa. And the 2012 South Carolina polling illustrates vividly how the polls in any state but Iowa and New Hampshire (let alone national polls) are easily overturned by intervening events like early-state wins and candidate withdrawals:
Howard Dean, to pick another prominent example, was way ahead at this point in the 2004 Democratic race. He ended up carrying only one state, his home state of Vermont.
Trump is hugely well-known (polls show his name recognition way higher than the rest of the field – only Jeb comes close), he’s received a disproportionate share of free media attention, and lots of current polling and past political science research shows that primary and caucus voters are way more likely than general election voters to make up their minds (including deciding whether to vote) close to the day of the election. And Trump’s supporters are disproportionately likely to be people who have not voted in previous Republican caucuses and primaries and may not show up, and his GOTV organization is highly questionable.
All of which is to say that there is still an awful lot of race to be run, and the empirical data supporting Trump as a serious contender for the nomination is not nearly as reliable as it might seem from the fact that it is often presented with numbers attached to it.
2. This is not who Republican primary voters are.
Set aside data for a minute, and consider history. We know that, in the past five contested GOP presidential races, Republican primary voters picked George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and Mitt Romney. It overstates the moderate, Establishment-oriented vote to assume this means a serious conservative or an anti-Establishment insurgent could never win, given that the vote for each was partly a reaction to the available alternatives. And, of course, those candidates all had their own appeal – McCain, Dole and HW Bush were all war heroes who appealed to veterans, while Romney was far more of an immigration hawk than the others. But it also gravely underestimates that vote to assume the people who voted for McCain and Romney just don’t exist anymore and have been replaced with a supermajority of people who will reflexively vote against anyone who thought McCain or Romney should even have been considered for the nomination.
But Trump-touting pundits (and pundits in general assessing the relative importance of electability, conservatism and anti-establishment populism in GOP primaries) have routinely forgotten that presidential primaries are not the only primaries decided by statewide Republican electorates. In fact, we have an extensive recent record of primaries in races for Senator and Governor. That record continues all the way to this year – we had primaries in 2015 in the Kentucky and Louisiana Governor’s races.
And in the past 24 years since David Duke’s victory in the 1991 Louisiana Governor’s race, we have almost never seen Republican primary voters actually choose a candidate anything like Trump. By “anything like Trump” I mean a candidate who
(1) Had never before run for or held elective office
(2) Had a long and recent history of aligning by positions, donations, endorsements, and other affiliations with liberals and Democrats; and
(3) Deployed rhetoric and a public persona so incendiary as to horrify and embarrass the party establishment.
The most recent GOP primary, in Louisiana in November 2015, was won by a sitting GOP Senator of wholly conventional conservative-but-establishment cast. The 2014 primaries were won by so many establishment-backed candidates that people routinely openly speculated that the Tea Party was dead. Mitch McConnell won over 60% of the vote in his primary against a Tea Party challenger, Matt Bevin, last year. And Bevin came back and won the primary and general elections for Governor by building on the credibility from a prior campaign and being a (somewhat) more disciplined candidate – in other words, by becoming a more professional politician. Candidates who seem kind of Trump-ish mostly won under unusual circumstances – Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected in a statewide multi-candidate multi-party recall, and Jesse Ventura ran as an independent.
If you look at the businesspeople with no political experience who have won GOP primaries in recent years, they have either been fairly orthodox conservative Tea Partiers (Rick Scott, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI)), people with family connections to the GOP establishment (Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), Carly Fiorina) or otherwise made themselves moderate and temperate enough to win establishment support (Rick Snyder, Bruce Rauner, Linda MacMahon, Meg Whitman). Bomb-throwing Tea Partiers who won nominations were mainly elected Republicans (Sharron Angle) or conservatives who’d run before (Christine O’Donnell). Todd Akin had been in office for 21 years; Richard Mourdock was a statewide elected official.
The closest to a Trump figure, who burned his bridges simultaneously with the party establishment and with ideological conservatives, would be Carl Paladino, a longtime Democrat who won the nomination for Governor of New York as a baseball-bat wielding Tea Party loose cannon in 2010. Many regular Republicans (myself included) figured that Paladino’s establishment opponent, Rick Lazio, had already proven himself a loser in being defeated by Hillary Clinton in the 2000 Senate race. And Paladino was a catastrophe as a general election candidate, losing to Andrew Cuomo by 30 points in a great GOP year. In the three early states – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina – Republicans in 2014 Senate primaries picked Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) (a conservative Republican), Scott Brown (a moderate Republican who had previously been a Senator from Massachusetts) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (an incumbent Republican far more moderate than his state). Do we really believe the 2014 electorate no longer exists?
Yes, I know the many reasons why the mood of the day is more with Trump than it has been before. But at no time in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 or 2015 have GOP primary voters in large numbers gravitated to candidates like Trump. I’ll need a lot more evidence to believe they are suddenly a wholly different electorate. I don’t lose my faith that easily.
3. The Party Would Rally To Stop Him
“Party establishment” can be a dirty word around these parts – and for valid reasons – and the institutional GOP has gone out of its way this time to provide an open process, and the establishment of donors and elected officials has been unusually divided on who to back in 2016, with the pace of endorsements far slower than usual and the money picture fractured after the initial rush to bankroll Jeb.
But no backroom conspiracy will be needed to form a stop-Trump coalition, if it comes to that. If he actually does better in the early going than expected, one will form in a hurry, organically. Candidates will drop out sooner. Voters will get more alarmed at the prospect. And ultimately, even if the nominee is Cruz (and thus disliked by the consultant class and the incumbents), there will be a movement more or less en masse to pick a horse. The fact that this has not happened yet is simply a reminder that we sometimes must go to the brink to focus people on priorities and get decisions made. But it will happen if it needs to, just as the Democrats rallied around Dukakis to keep Jesse Jackson from exploiting the Dukakis/Gore split to make a serious run for the nomination in 1988. (Jackson was the last Democrat who was really like Trump – guys like Bernie Sanders and Howard Dean are nutty extremists, but they cater to the party’s more educated and ideological base, while Jackson was more like Trump, running on the racial resentments and fears of the least educated and affluent segment of his party).
4. Trump Will Not Run Third Party
Trump will not want to go away quietly. He will bluff at a third party run. He may even start down the road to one. But he will not go through with it all the way to Election Day. There are a variety of reasons why it would be difficult: “sore loser” laws, early filing deadlines, the amount of money he would have to lay out from his own pocket. All these are reasons why Trump would not lightly go through with a run, but they are not reasons in and of themselves why he won’t do it.
The real reason is much simpler: Trump does not like to be a loser. And in our political system, third party candidates are losers. Oh, they may lead briefly in the polls when they announce, but the institutional gravity of the two parties and their coalitions inevitably drag them down to third place, and in third place they stay. And if there’s one thing Donald Trump – obsessed as he is with his poll standing – does not want to do, it’s spend months in last place in a three-way race, unable to project himself as a winner rather than just a spiteful spoiler.
Will Trump’s devotees stay home if he is not on the ballot? Some will, but they may not be people we can appeal to with a candidate capable of winning a general election majority. Some of his online supporters, the white supremacists and the Putinbots, are in any event far less numerous than the noise they generate. Others who respond to Trump are not such unreasonable people, they are simply ordinary Americans at the end of their tether who have been given few good options the last few elections and need persuading to follow someone more serious about leadership. Some are indeed voters the GOP needs to win a general election – but just as Obama did with the Jesse Jackson voters, the GOP can win back some of these votes in ways that don’t require alienating the rest of the electorate.
It’s Our Party. Stay And Fight For It.
For the anti-Establishment crowd, rejecting despair means, first of all, rejecting the impulse to “burn it down.” Because even John Lennon knew that “if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.” The answer to deficiencies in the Republican Party is never to voluntarily choose defeat or schism or outright retreat from the field. Sure, the anti-slavery Whigs did that, and were rewarded with one of this nation’s great accomplishments – but costs along the way were so ghastly we should not lightly re-live the 1860s. Walking away, or preferring defeat to teach a lesson, is never the path to victory. One more Senate win in 2006 or 2008, and we would not have Obamacare a decade later.
No, the answer instead is long, steady, wearying, patient engagement. It’s not always sexy, but with hard work we can take the tools we have to hand and make them gradually and incrementally better – and while the results are sometimes hard to see (being conservatives, many of our monuments are things that we prevented from happening), we have been steadily improving the party. You may not love Marco Rubio, but he is more conservative than George W. Bush, who was more conservative than Bob Dole, who was more conservative than Gerald Ford. You may not love Paul Ryan, but he is more conservative than Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), who was more conservative than Denny Hastert, who was more conservative than Bob Michel. You may not love John Roberts, but he is more conservative than Anthony Kennedy, who is more conservative than Harry Blackmun (I mean to do a fuller analysis of the Supreme Court some time, but just as an example, if you replaced Roberts and Kennedy with two more of Breyer and Ginsburg, you’d have no individual Second Amendment right to bear arms). And below the federal level, we have had far greater success, success that a Republican White House could free up just by getting out of its way.
Progress, I know, is frustratingly slow, and backsliding all too common. But that is the nature of a Republic – “if we can keep it.” Keeping it involves calculated choices to take some risks here and there to remove entrenched party figures pour encourager les autres, to remind them that this is our party and not theirs, and that there are no indispensable men. It may involve working to change rules and systems to our favor. When George Washington found that the Revolution he had labored for had produced a failing state, he did not retreat in a snit to Mount Vernon to let the British re-invade, he waded into the Constitutional Convention to strengthen it. When Ronald Reagan lost the primaries in 1976, he redoubled his effort to sell conservative ideas while tailoring his own more narrowly, enabling him to win in 1980.
We can get results. We can change the world together. And we don’t need perfect people in government to do it. I never thought I’d live to see the end of the Soviet Empire. I never thought I’d live to see the Democrats’ 40-year control of the House broken. I never thought I’d live to see New York City cleaned up of crime. All those things arrived after decades of failed or apparently failed attempts to bring them about; the steady stream finally broke the dam. It has been, perhaps, too long since we have seen those kinds of vivid results at the national level, but victory after long persistence can be the most rewarding kind of all.
Better Off Ted?
I won’t spend as much time here on the anti-Cruz crowd, as there will be plenty of time to kick around the primary choices over the next 3-6 months. Primary elections are always nerve-wracking, and frayed nerves always have us at each others’ throats, especially those of us in the close-quarters combat zones of social media. But Ted Cruz is not threatening to leave the party, or pry it from its principles. I fear that he would face serious hurdles as a general election candidate, but I felt that way about Mitt Romney, too, and lots of people felt that way about McCain and George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. Sometimes they were right, sometimes not, but after all the grief Cruz has taken for not being a team player, it’s pretty bitterly ironic to see some of his critics moaning about pulling a lever for him. Sure, I’m pretty unhappy with some of Cruz’s choices in playing the angles of the Trump phenomenon, but the man is trying to win an election we all want to win. Both sides of the Rubio-Cruz debate can and should grant a little grace and realize how narrow the real differences between the two candidates and their supporters really are. You don’t want Cruz as the nominee? Put yourself to work sending Trump and Jeb and Christie and the rest packing and go all-in for Rubio, and let the chips fall where they may.
And even if we don’t pick the best candidate, we’ll still end up with an undeniably conservative candidate, and like him or not, we can and must do our best to help him win, or bitterly regret not doing do. Most everyone who opposes Cruz for the nomination has, at one point or another, wanted or needed to ask the Cruz supporters to show up and vote for someone they were none too enthused about. Win or lose, that’s what a team does.
So, enjoy Christmas, or whatever other holiday you may be celebrating this season. Don’t lose faith. Don’t lose hope. Never give in. And never despair.