How did we go from “This is the strongest GOP field in generations” to “Are we sure the GOP isn’t on course to nominating their very own Dukakis?” before the end of summer? It’s August 24th. There’s been one debate. We’re fully six months out from a vote being cast.
And yet I can’t blame Bill Kristol for panicking. As with today’s market crash, every man copes with the ordeal of Trumpmania in his own way.
But what if come October all we have is Bushies lacking all conviction, Trumpers full of passionate intensity, and a bunch of uninspiring also-rans? I devoutly hope this isn’t the case. But what if it is?
Shouldn’t Republicans be open to doing what Democrats are now considering? That is: Welcoming into the race, even drafting into the race if need be, one or two new and potentially superior candidates? After all, if a new candidate or new candidates didn’t take off, the party would be no worse off, and someone from the current field would prevail. If the October surprise candidate caught fire, it would be all the better for the GOP–whether he ultimately prevailed or forced one of the existing candidates to up his game.
Who could such a mysterious dark horse be? Well, it’s not as if every well-qualified contender is already on the field. Mitch Daniels was probably the most successful Republican governor of recent times, with federal executive experience to boot. Paul Ryan is the intellectual leader of Republicans in the House of Representatives, with national campaign experience. The House also features young but tested leaders like Jim Jordan, Trey Gowdy and Mike Pompeo. There is the leading elected representative of the 9/11 generation who has also been a very impressive freshman senator, Tom Cotton. There could be a saner and sounder version of Trump—another businessman who hasn’t held electoral office. And there are distinguished conservative leaders from outside politics; Justice Samuel Alito and General (ret.) Jack Keane come to mind.
If Trump has faded by October, do we still need a white knight/dark horse to get in? If neither Trump nor the “electable” candidates already in the race, like Marco Rubio, can’t stop Bush 3.0, Mike Pompeo surely isn’t going to. On the other hand, if Trump is still rolling in October, which of the people named above would realistically make even a tiny dent in his populist movement? Who among them has the high name recognition and donor connections to put together an out-of-the-box campaign in the span of a few weeks that would land on voters’ radar before Iowa? The only one of the prospective candidates who might fit the bill is Ryan, who’s well known thanks to his VP run three years ago, but Ryan is a singularly bad choice to try to halt populist momentum. Trump (and Huckabee) would tear him apart as a threat to Social Security and Medicare; meanwhile, conservatives would sneer at him for working with Luis Gutierrez on immigration and for making that bad budget deal with Patty Murray last year. Ryan would be left grappling with Bush and Rubio for center-right votes, and the last thing the center-right needs is to have their vote divided yet another way as they struggle to stop Trump. Consolidation, not further diversification, is what anti-Trumpers should be focused on.
If not for his affair and the ensuing charges about mishandling classified info, I’d say David Petraeus is the sort of late entrant who might be able to cut into Trump’s base. Their styles are polar opposites but Petraeus fills the role that draws some people to Trump, that of the successful no-nonsense outsider who’ll cut through the Washington jungle and get things done. He’s the strongman in waiting. But he’s compromised now, and it’d be ridiculous for the GOP to swing around behind him given that one of their core arguments against Hillary is that someone who’d mishandle classified material can’t be trusted with the presidency. The only other person out there with the stature, the money, and the network to get in late and send a shockwave through the race is, of course, Mitt Romney, but he’d have the same problem Ryan would have — namely, unless the center-right clears the field for him, which Bush and Rubio won’t do, his presence would splinter the anti-Trump vote further. Romney, as the last nominee and an establishment favorite, would also be the worst possible counter (well, except for McCain, I guess) to the implicit message of Trump’s campaign, that the “old” GOP has failed utterly and it’s time for something boldly new and different. He’s also temperamentally unsuited to take down Trump despite what Ross Douthat wrote last week about Mitt having shown more of an “alpha male” presence — a man who’s confident and in command — in his debates in 2012 than Jeb Bush did in the Fox debate a few weeks ago. I think Romney would come off as hapless against Trump in refusing to respond when Trump calls him a “loser” who “choked” against Obama and whose net worth, by the way, is less than Trump’s is. It’d be the rhetorical equivalent of one guy giving another a wedgie and the latter declining to punish him. Who’s the one who’s in command in that scenario?
The worst thing about Romney, though, is that he’d essentially forfeit the best line of attack against Trump, that Trump’s not really a conservative. That’s unfair in a sense: Romney’s surely much more conservative than Trump is and should, on the merits, be able to call him out as a RINO. Because of RomneyCare, though, and because his candidacy was championed by so many other RINOs four years ago, the idea of Trump being excommunicated from the movement by Mitt Romney is ridiculous. If the donor class wants to stop Trump, they’re better off focusing on one electable contender, probably Rubio given his optimistic message, to be the beneficiary of their largesse and trying to get anti-Trumpers to coalesce behind him.