We all cope with the reality of a Trumpist GOP in our own way. Most righties I follow on social media are busy these days sketching out elaborate scenarios for how Rubio might have a path to the nomination if he finishes 3-5-2-2-2-2-2-3-2-3-2-3-3-2 or whatever. Others are invested in the “Rubio/Cruz unity ticket!” silliness that’s never going to happen because Rubio and Cruz don’t care about conservatism if it requires sacrificing their vanity. Still others prefer the idea that if only Rubio and Cruz really went after Trump, undecideds would see his candidacy as the folly that it is and conservatism would sweep to victory. Charles Cooke, one of my faves at NRO, makes that case at length. There’s something to the idea, too. Stuart Stevens is right that there remain obvious attacks on Trump that still haven’t been tried even though we’re eight long months past the inception of Trumpmania. (Here’s a dozen or so potential new ones from BuzzFeed which you’ll be seeing in the general election if you don’t see them next month.)
I’ll be honest, though — to me, the “attack harder!” strategy reeks of the idea that there’s some magic incantation that can be uttered that’ll alter reality as we know it. Republican voters are under a spell and now it’s a simple matter of finding the right words to reverse that spell. That’s comforting; maybe it would have worked in November, when Cruz was bro-hugging Trump every five minutes. Won’t work now. Especially with Trump showing surprising strength even in demographics that are supposed to be against him. One North Carolina poll has him ahead of Rubio as a second choice for Cruz’s voters. Another national poll shows him picking up strength among Jeb Bush voters. The idea that there’s a conservative majority out there ready to beat Trump if only Rubio and Cruz stumble unto the “right” attack feels an awful lot like wishful thinking.
My personal coping mechanism is imagining what a conservative third-party would look like and who would lead it, even though I’m skeptical it’ll happen and that it’d do much to hurt Trump. I think Erick Erickson tossed this out off-the-cuff, but it’s not a bad idea.
My theory for why Mitt Romney, the most obvious candidate to run as a conservative independent, wouldn’t jump in is that it’s too much effort and too much risk for too little likelihood of success. If Romney never runs again, his legacy will be that of a man who successfully won the 2012 nomination and then was proved right on various foreign-policy matters after the country rejected him in the general election. If he runs third-party against Trump, his legacy will be that of a man who helped elect Hillary Clinton after a quixotic run that landed him in third place behind the guy from “The Apprentice.” Romney would run if he had a legitimate chance of winning. He doesn’t.
Neither does Rick Perry. But Perry wouldn’t be risking the sort of otherwise impressive national legacy that Romney has. On the contrary, Perry’s two runs for president ended in a disastrous flameout in 2012 after several debate mishaps and then an early exit last year when he couldn’t get traction in a field with many less formidable candidates. Running third-party to give conservatives a choice would arguably rehabilitate his legacy. And Perry’s enough of a true-blue conservative that he might feel duty-bound to do it even though the prospects of victory are zero. Remember, the one memorable moment from his 2016 campaign was him laying into Trump at length in an eloquent speech about the virtues of conservatism over Trumpism. He’d be a natural to run as an anti-Trump independent. And he’s well-liked enough on the right, and has enough of a name among conservatives, that he might make righties take a hard look at his new party. That’s the key problem with imagining, say, Jon Huntsman as a third-party challenger to Trump. Conservatives don’t like Huntsman. Why would they jump ship for him to cast a protest vote? They do like Perry, though. He’d raise some money this time as the only game in town on the right in the general election. He’d have no chance of winning, but of spoiling Trump by taking 10-15 percent of the vote? Sure, that’s doable. The question is simply whether he and conservative voters think tanking Trump is important enough to install the Clintons for four years. Look at it this way: Barring something unlikely happening, like Perry pulling Trumpist votes from Trump, all he’d be doing is giving disaffected conservatives a place to park their ballots instead of staying home on election day.
And you know what? That could be very important to protecting a Republican Senate. Conor Friedersdorf makes an excellent point:
In some states, a right-of-center electorate divided between Trump and a conservative challenger could turn out more total voters who’d support down-ballot Republicans than a Trump vs. Clinton race where conservatives stayed home.
It sure could. If 10 percent or so of conservatives are staying home to boycott Trump, that means they’re also staying home for Republican Senate incumbents who desperately need every available vote with Democratic turnout expected to be high. Some conservatives might show up to vote for the downballot races and leave their presidential box unchecked to protest Trump, but most, I think, will eschew voting entirely. That’s a recipe for a bloodbath in Congress. Perry running third-party would give those people a reason to turn out, vote for him, and then inevitably vote Republican on the rest of their ballot. That’s crucially important. Another good reason for a third party, per Friedersdorf: It would give the right some leverage over Trump in the general election. If it’s a binary choice between him and Hillary, he could tack towards the center knowing that righties have no choice but to stick with him in the interest of beating Hillary or else stay home. If Perry’s out there campaigning for votes, Trump would need to make some concessions to the right to keep those voters onboard. Not every conservative who’s inclined to boycott Trump is a lost cause to him. For some voters it will depend on how much he woos them in the general election. Perry would force him to.
Coming soon to a campaign near you?