So much for the Grand Old, er, New Conservative Party. After leading conservative activists floated the idea of running a movement conservative in an independent presidential bid ahead of a strategy meeting, cooler heads prevailed. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reports that the group considered the option, but moved away from it for its impracticalities:
A secretive group of Republican operatives and conservative leaders convened Thursday morning for more than three hours to discuss ways to unite the right against Donald Trump, with a presentation about the feasibility of mounting a third-party challenge as well as extensive deliberations about whether a coalition of anti-Trump forces could prevent the billionaire mogul from securing the party’s presidential nomination at the July convention in Cleveland. …
Per three people familiar with the talks, the mood of the room was muted and downbeat. Attendees voiced frustration with the lack of coordination so far and wondered aloud whether Trump could be halted. The third-party scenario drew intense interest, but it also acknowledge that it would logistically and financially difficult with few major politicians willing for now to agree to take the political risk that such a run would entail.
Instead, a consensus emerged by the end that the best option may be working in upcoming primaries to boost Cruz and hope to prevent Trump from securing a majority of delegates and making a convention stand-off the culmination of those efforts, the people said.
That’s not to say everyone saw it the same way:
“It’s certainly not too late,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said as he left the session. “You could get another party on the ballot. If you did that, you’d need a movement conservative to be be candidate.”
It may not be literally too late, but it certainly is in practical terms. Michael Bloomberg opted out two weeks ago, and that was considered almost the deadline for making the decision. It takes time and organization to qualify for the general-election ballot, as well as lots and lots of cash to fund the organizing efforts, especially on short notice. And Franks can’t even name a “movement conservative” to lead that effort yet, let alone talk about where he or she would find the cash.
Yesterday, I criticized the suggestion of running a third-party candidate on the same practical issues noted in Costa’s report. That generated some interesting discussion and rebuttals along two lines. In my column for The Fiscal Times, I respond to two main thrusts of the criticisms:
Conservatives defending the idea rebut these concerns in two ways. The first argument is that Donald Trump would be so awful for conservatives and conservative policy as president that he needs to be stopped before he reaches the White House. However, Republican primary voters have had that argument in front of them for months, and have repeatedly shown that they aren’t concerned about it. Trump has won most of the deeply conservative states in the South already. With the primary narrowing down to a binary choice between Trump and Cruz, Republican primary voters will have the opportunity to deliver a referendum on that question. If conservatives can’t win that, then what chance would a conservative independent bid have at all?
The second argument relies on the fourth Kübler-Ross stage – utter despair that Trump could win an election against Hillary Clinton at all. If so, then what harm could a principled protest candidacy do? If the presidency was the only office at stake in November, perhaps the damage would be minimal – but it’s not. Voters will elect 435 Representatives, 34 Senators, 12 governors, and hundreds of state legislative seats, and conservatives need to be inside the GOP tent to influence those elections to press for conservative policies and goals. Pushing an independent presidential bid will cut off conservative influence all the way down the ballot, probably for years to come.
Besides, this argument is circular anyway. If Trump is doomed to lose in November, then it makes no sense for conservatives to separate themselves from the GOP in advance. Doing so will leave Trump supporters with the excuse of conservative betrayal for his inevitable loss. That “knife in the back” narrative might transform the separation into a more permanent divorce, ushering in an era of progressive/Democratic dominance not seen since the 1994 Republican revolution.
At the Atlantic, Molly Ball writes that others in the party are at the fifth Kübler-Ross stage of grief — acceptance, at least under certain conditions:
The hope on the part of the political class is that Donald Trump will begin to behave like a normal candidate: building a real campaign out of what has been an amateurish, wing-and-a-prayer operation; raising money from the very same rich stiffs whose influence he’s spent the last several months railing against. The donors, for their part, are also starting to come around. “If Trump is the nominee, I think there would be a sufficient appetite to end the last eight years of the leftward direction and overregulated economy that the majority of donors will support him,” the veteran fundraiser Fred Malek told the Washington Post. Stan Hubbard, a billionaire from Minnesota, concurred, telling Politico, “I would kind of hold my nose doing it, but I would have to do it.”
For Trump to become acceptable to the party regulars, he will have to show he can act the part. “He’s got to do a number of things,” said Scott Reed, the chief political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “He’s got to build a national campaign. He’s got to unite the party. He’s got to run a convention. He’s got to go up against the Clintons.” But the first three items on that list were things he could be taught or helped with, and on the final point, “we know he’s capable of pivoting on Hillary and filleting her.”
Trump, Reed believes, will grow into the role once the nomination is in his grasp. “It’s a big responsibility, and I think he will recognize that,” he said. “He’s going to recognize that being the nominee of the Republican Party is bigger than Donald Trump. I think he’s going to mature.” He added, “That’s not based on anything factual. I just think he’ll come to that conclusion.”
That sounds more like the first Kübler-Ross stage — denial. Trump leads the first stage of the path to the White House without doing any of what Reed describes, so the incentive to change hasn’t exactly presented itself as of yet. But it’s true that Trump has a track record of success in business, where the need to deploy shifting strategies based on market conditions arises constantly, so Trump may very well be able to pull that off in the political market as well. Thus far, though, as Reed says, we haven’t seen much evidence of that.
Update: The link to Costa’s article was bad; I’ve fixed it.