Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 1, 2016
POLITICS: Yes, Donald Trump Would Be Worse Than Any Prior Republican Nominee
Why now? Why Trump?
Haven’t We Voted For Some Terrible Republicans Before?
Many – if not most – #NeverTrump voters have pulled the lever for some or all of Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, and Bob Dole as well as lots of other less-than-pure Republicans for lesser offices. I personally voted for all of them, plus backing some fairly heterodox presidential primary candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich. In the years since I became old enough to vote in 1989, the only two semi-serious GOP presidential contenders before Trump that I’d have seriously considered not voting for were Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan, both mainly for national security reasons, but at least Paul and Buchanan were dyed-in-the-wool pro-lifers, in Paul’s case grounded in his life experience as an OB/GYN.
I also voted for some terrible down-ticket Republicans here in New York (Mike Bloomberg, Carl Paladino, Rick Lazio, George Pataki…heck, I even voted for a City Councilman who was the blood-drinking leader of a local pagan sect and was recently sentenced to a decade in prison for selling Democrats access to the Republican primary for Mayor.) It’s an easier answer for the local officials: I live in deep-blue territory, and local electeds may have fewer powers and less important roles in party leadership. Indeed, I’d probably vote for Trump if he ran for Mayor of New York, since he really is not that different from Bloomberg, and the Mayor’s race is almost entirely a single-issue referendum on policing (for similar reasons, I might even vote for Bill Clinton if he ran for Mayor).
We know, from his deeds, words, and even his pronouncements in this campaign, that Trump offers nothing to conservatives – worse than nothing, he would evict us from any position within our own party. He gets his foreign policy ideas from Michael Moore and Code Pink (or worse yet, from Vladimir Putin); his abortion views are grounded in his sympathy with Planned Parenthood; he supports socialized medicine in the form of single-payer healthcare, higher taxes, more government spending, and Herbert Hoover's trade policy. He’s never met a bailout or a crony-capitalist deal he didn't like, or a Democrat he wouldn’t donate to. He’s astonishingly ignorant, emotionally unstable, and wholly incapable of saying no to Democrats. Trump is a spoiled, entitled rich kid who shows not the slightest understanding of the American way of up-by-the booststraps striving to better yourself; in Trump’s world, the rich get richer by having the right friends, and everybody else is a serf who needs the government to protect them from foreign competition.
Let’s compare Trump to some of the prior Republican presidential losers, and I’ll throw in Rudy and Newt for good measure since I’ve written on this site in their defense before:
Mitt Romney: Romney’s flip-flopping on pushed me pretty far, since I wrote tens of thousands of words attacking him in the 2008 and 2012 primaries, predicted that he’d be a bad general election candidates, and basically spent the 2012 campaign carefully avoiding making any affirmative statements about Romney’s commitment to his own stated agenda. I once characterized Romney’s record of standing with conservatives as “a sheet of thin ice as far as the eye can see“.
But even so, Romney was no Trump. Romney, unlike Trump, had an actual record in office, albeit only a single term as Governor, and he did pursue some fiscally and socially conservative positions in office, on taxes, spending and same-sex marriage. Romney was also more loyal to the GOP as an institution and a team than Trump – he’d been a Republican Governor, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, had run against Ted Kennedy for Senate, had built a network of loyalists in the party through endorsements, donations and campaign stops, and was the son of a father who was a Republican Governor, Republican presidential candidate and Republican Cabinet Secretary and a mother who also ran for Senate as a Republican. Romney in 2012 was also on his second run for the White House, which required him to stay consistent and committed to his 2008 platform; he was neither quite as inexperienced nor quite as new to his “severely conservative” platform by 2012 as he had been four years earlier.
And perhaps most important and most unlike Trump, Romney demonstrated by 2012 that he had the capability, the intelligence, the base of knowledge, and the personal character to be Commander-in-Chief. His foreign policy pronouncements in 2012 were not terribly exciting (President Obama memorably mocked them as a throwback to the 80s), but over and over since then he has been proven right by events. And while Romney’s political identity was always questionable, he was and is a man of outstanding personal character – faithful family man, pillar of his church, unfailingly loyal to his business partners and employees, generous with not just his money but his time to charity, personally modest and decent. In every one of these ways, Romney stood as the opposite of Trump, a thrice-married serial adulterer who has left a long trail of wreckage through both his family life and his business career and has become a byword for crassness. As much as I worried about Romney’s ideological commitments and political courage, I came to admire the man personally and trust that he would be a steady hand leading the nation, a leader we could be proud of. Trump is the opposite of all those things.
John McCain and Bob Dole: I actually voted for McCain three times, although in retrospect I regretted supporting him against Bush in 2000, the reasons for which I explained at the time (I do not regret preferring McCain to Romney and Huckabee in 2008). McCain was in many ways a more open moderate than Romney, more consistent in his stances on a lot of issues but also consistently a problem for conservatives. That said, it was not actually that hard to see McCain as a guy who was broadly on the side of conservatives part of the way on a lot of issues, and more to the point, a guy who proved himself fully capable of digging in and fighting for our side on some tough calls. He voted to put Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court – the Thomas vote was a tough one, as he was confirmed by two votes. He voted to remove Bill Clinton from office in the 1998 impeachment. He was a faithful vote for the Reagan agenda in the 1980s, a consistent pro-lifer and a supporter of entitlement reform, free trade, and nuclear power. He backed Phil Gramm in the 1996 primaries. He built his whole 2008 campaign around courageously standing up for finishing the job in Iraq when the war was at the nadir of its popularity. And McCain was and is a vigorous voice on national security issues for decades.
None of that is to whitewash McCain’s problems for conservatives, nor to deny that McCain has his own issues of character (e.g., cheating on and abandoning his first wife, or the Keating Five scandal). But between his political career and his famously heroic POW record, McCain had demonstrated some important attributes of presidential character: seriousness of purpose, deep and abiding patriotism sealed in blood, the ability to take a stand and stick with it come Hell or high water. I knew McCain was a compromise in a bad political environment in 2008, but I also trusted him as Commander in Chief and as a guy who would follow through when the going got tough.
The case for Dole – aside from the fact that I was 25 and more of a knee-jerk straight-ticket voter at the time – is more or less similar to the case for McCain, although Dole’s legislative record was distinctly less conservative than McCain’s. Dole was doomed, of course, as everyone knew at the time, but at least he was a war hero, the sort of man you could trust as Commander-in-Chief, and was nothing if not a party man through and through, with 35 years as an elected Republican and leader of a GOP caucus in the Senate.
Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich: I suppose I need to defend Rudy (my first choice in 2008) and Newt (my final choice and vote in 2012 after Perry and Pawlenty dropped out), although the latter was mostly a desperation protest vote. Rudy was the first candidate I supported for President who was not even nominally pro-life, and will probably be the last. In part that was an effort to square the circle of finding workable common ground on judges, which by the end of his campaign, Rudy had never been able to do, and that’s a story for another day, but also one that drove home the impossibility of making a Republican presidential candidacy work without a clear and explicit commitment to the pro-life cause.
But fundamentally, despite flaws in their personal character (flaws on display again this year as both have disappointingly gravitated towards Trump), what I liked more than anything about Rudy and Newt is that they had actually accomplished an enormous amount for conservatives, both in policy and politics, as well as helping a whole lot of other Republicans get elected over the years. They fought the battles and earned their scars.
Despite his social liberalism, Rudy’s tenure as Mayor of New York was the most consequential real-world domestic policy achievement for conservative ideas since Reagan; he single-handedly changed the trajectory and living conditions in New York City, and sustained a colossal amount of incoming political fire to do so, plus providing tremendous leadership in crisis after 9/11.
Newt’s tenure as Speaker featured its share of missed opportunities and misjudgments, but name me a more consequential and effective Republican House or Senate leader in the last half century; in 1995-96, he got more done for conservative policy priorities in two years with a Democratic President than Denny Hastert did in six with a Republican. And for all their policy deviations, Rudy and Newt are both guys who are well-versed in conservative ideas and expert at defending them in the public square. None of these things – not the accomplishments, not the fights for policy and the political team, not the ability to sell our ideas and solutions – is true of Trump. (Polls show that virtually every position Trump has taken during the campaign is less popular with the general public now than before he ran).
In short: yes, you can find an example of many of Trump’s flaws in prior Republican presidential candidates. But not one of those candidates combined the total package of Trump: the unfitness to be Commander-in-Chief; the total lack of accomplishments, sacrifices or even efforts over his lifetime for any cause we believe in, combined with repeated efforts to assist the other team; the manifest lack of political principle, personal character or demonstrated political character; the ignorance; the catnip for white supremacists; the toxic effect on the brand of both the party and its ideas.
A vote for Trump, even in the general election, is a suicide note for the Republican Party and the conservative movement. I will never vote for Hillary Clinton, but I cannot in good conscience ever give aid and comfort to Donald Trump and the poison he represents. The only cost to abandoning Trump in the general election is the specter of a defeat to Hillary – but Trump’s nomination ensures that anyway. If he wants to sink the GOP at sea against Hillary Clinton, I see no reason to waste a life preserver on him.