With apologies for invoking that rather shopworn cliche, the fat lady sang this week and the curtain came down on the tragi-comic opera of the Republican presidential primaries. The fat lady’s aria was a sad one indeed. To Donald Trump it doubtless sounded triumphal, but to many of us it conveyed the mournful tones of a funeral dirge. The dirge reflected not merely the prospect of a Republican defeat in November, but the painful fact that such a loss, distasteful as it might be, would be preferable to a victory for Trump. If Trump suffers the devastating defeat in November that he deserves, the vital task of cleaning up and rebuilding the Republican Party can begin immediately. If he should somehow win, however, that task will be deferred indefinitely, perhaps forever.
The media reports that a number of Republican leaders (if that term has not become a hopeless oxymoron) are in the process of “coming around” to recognize the reality of a Trump nomination, and accommodating themselves to it in the name of unity. Others, notably including Speaker Paul Ryan, have withheld their support, but signaled that they too may eventually capitulate. (“I’m just not ready to do that at this point,” Ryan told CNN, adding that he hopes to be able to do so in the future.) Still others, whom we would term “Responsible Republicans” insist that #NeverTrump meant what it said: never. We should emphasize that the Responsible Republicans comprise a group far broader than RINOs. Indeed, it includes many voices from the relatively far right, who have little use for RINOs. They insist, on the basis of considerable evidence, that whatever Trump is, he is no conservative.
We stand very firmly among the Responsible Republicans. As we observed in a Special Bulletin on March 2, “The essential danger is simply that of putting the country in the hands of a leader whose signal characteristics are ignorance, vulgarity, bigotry and mendacity.” Nothing in the intervening weeks has changed our mind. Unity behind such a candidate is quite frankly something that neither the party nor the country can afford.
We disagree with Trump on many issues, including his preposterous wall, the mass rounding up and deportation of illegal immigrants, banning Muslims, embarking on trade wars, threatening NATO allies, and cozying up to Vladimir Putin. But our most fundamental objections to him are on grounds of character and temperament, and these are matters that cannot be “fixed” by teams of professional advisers coaching him on how to act “presidential.” In short, to borrow another popular cliche, this is a pig that cannot be improved by lipstick.
What then are Responsible Republicans to do? First, obviously, is to not vote for Trump or give him any kind of support. As David Brooks recently observed:
[Republican leaders] seem blithely unaware that this is a Joe McCarthy moment. People will be judged by where they stood at this time. Those who walked with Trump will be tainted forever after for the degradation of standards and the general election slaughter.
Beyond refusing to walk with Trump, what more? The easiest course is simply to “stay home” or to concentrate one’s efforts to salvage the candidates lower on the ballot. But is that enough? We think not. The most attractive possibility, which we have previously suggested, is to support an independent candidate. The benefits of such support were concisely summarized by Sam Stein in The Huffington Post:
A traditional conservative on the ballot who could peel a few points away from Trump would virtually assure Hillary Clinton of victory — giving business-minded conservatives who prefer Clinton a way to support her without having to support her directly. As importantly, a third-party conservative candidate could potentially draw in Republican voters disaffected by having Trump on top of the ticket, thereby giving a much-needed boost to down-ballot candidates.
Moreover, one can at least fantasize that the right candidate running as an independent could be strong enough to throw the election into the House of Representatives and then emerge as president. The odds against that would probably be no worse than the 5,000-1 offered on Leicester, now the newly crowned champion of the Premier League in England.
There are myriad obstacles that would face an independent candidacy, but the most basic and most difficult is the problem of the missing elephant in the room: of the various individuals whose names have been bruited about, none have shown the slightest interest in that assignment. For example, one of our favorites would be Robert Gates, whose name has been suggested by Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post. Gates, however, quickly dismissed the idea, “That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Not a chance.” The fact is that we would probably support any center-right candidate who had the courage, stamina and instinct for self-sacrifice to step forward. But we do not expect such a candidate to emerge.
Absent an independent candidate, the remaining alternative is to vote for, and otherwise support, Hillary Clinton. A few Republicans have said publicly that is what they plan to do and, if there is no independent candidate, we will join them. As we have said before, Clinton is a candidate of many flaws and vulnerabilities whom, in normal times, we would relish opposing. But 2016 is not a normal year and for all her failings, personal and political, we judge that Clinton is within the mainstream of American political tradition. Hence, we are anticipating the necessity of becoming a “Republican for Hillary” some time in the coming months. In the meantime, should Clinton be dramatically overtaken by scandal, concerning her emails or otherwise, we shall, of course, reassess.
We understand that many, perhaps most, Republicans, including some RINOs, will disagree with our conclusion, and we respect their views, To us, however, the choice seems clear: #NeverTrump means never Trump.