When two separate groups — one headed by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and another gaggle of prominent movement conservatives — began their quest for a third candidate it was not out of the question that they could have persuaded Mitt Romney or another respected figure to take on Donald Trump. It was nearly a month ago that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, dropped out of the race.
But as the process dragged on, prominent figures such as Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and former senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) declined their entreaties. Names were bantered about, expectations raised and then dashed. Meanwhile, elected Republicans predictably fell into line behind Trump. The window for grabbing a viable contender who might forestall a full GOP embrace of Trump closed.
Anxious to still offer someone, David French, a Bronze Star recipient and respected lawyer, became the default candidate. Despite his impressive record in journalism, the military and law, French's potential candidacy, leaked Tuesday, was underwhelming. Some conservatives dismissed it as “absurd.” Erick Erickson, who was in the faction of conservatives who came close to corralling a big fish, dubbed French's candidacy an “insurmountable improbability.” Journalist Matt Lewis sniffed (with justification) that, while admirable, French is not a “serious presidential contender.” He argued, “Unlike past ubiquitous TV commentators like, say, Pat Buchanan — or even Bill Kristol (why didn't he just run?) — French isn't all that well known outside the tight confines of conservative intellectual circles. This may well change, but — as of today — I'm more famous than he is.” And those are conservatives hostile to Trump. The MSM was far more harsh. And at least some members of the movement conservative group seemed to reject French outright.
Perhaps the effort was doomed from the start. Maybe the groups set unrealistic expectations. Possibly a more professional rollout would have not set French up for ridicule. Nevertheless, we are where we began: Trump has executed a hostile takeover of the GOP, which is too bereft of compelling ideas and leaders to put up much resistance. Those who tried but failed to come up with a big-name alternative to Trump spent time and effort (all volunteered) for the thankless task of trying to rescue the GOP from itself. Their enterprise was honorable, albeit unsuccessful.
The real lesson is not that the #NeverTrump groups “failed,” but that the GOP has. Perhaps the reason a large array of sophisticated senators, governors and ex-governors could not beat Trump in the primaries was a message failure, not lack of a suitable messenger. Even the most anti-establishment candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, who represented the most doctrinaire form of conservatism, could only win a sliver of the GOP electorate (the “very conservative” Republicans). It seems the answer to Trump is not a stringent, a-historical version of 1980's conservatism.
That does not mean conservatives or other Republicans in this year's election have “no choice.” Libertarian Gary Johnson will likely be on the ballot in all 50 states. Despite his obscurity, French might appear on the ballot in some states. (Realistic assessment of his chances in no way should be interpreted as lack of respect for French as a person.) Some states allow write-ins. Any voter can leave the top of the ticket blank. And then there are the two major party nominees. Those are “choices,” just not very satisfactory ones. That is the price paid, however, for failing to grasp the national mood, listen attentively to voters and present accessible leadership. It is a failure of conservatives' own making.
Bill Galston, one of the most observant commentators around, explains:
“[T]he Republican Party leadership ... assumed that their rank-and-file voters were furious about their elected officials' failure to deliver smaller government, big cuts in annual spending and marginal tax rates, reductions in Social Security and Medicare outlays, and effective resistance to the Obama administration's social liberalism. Along came Mr. Trump, who proved that a plurality of the Republican electorate didn't much care about the classic Reagan-era agenda because it no longer addressed their fears and met their needs.
“The larger error was empirical, not conceptual: we underestimated the extent of the mounting frustration in the large parts of the country left behind since the end of the 20th century, when incomes began to stagnate well before the Great Recession and a slow recovery made matters worse. ‘Flyover country’ describes more than the travel patterns of bi-coastal elites; it depicts the mindset as well, along the lines of Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover.”
The Republican solution to Trump won't come in 2016. It will need to come in the months and years after this election. That's when the search really begins for empathetic, effective voices in the center-right to prevail over Trumpkins and false Reagan idolaters.