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The Not-Trump-Not-Bush Republican Primary


A lot of the support for Donald Trump is fueled by outrage against the Republican establishment. But those who ask us to understand this anger—as if it were a totally new phenomenon that none of us had ever noticed before—are ignoring the fact that Trump divides the right just as much as the establishment does. There is a whole cohort of people—Jonah Goldberg is one, and so am I—who will walk away from the Republican Party and split off from the right in the unlikely case that it decides to embrace Trump. We won’t be part of a movement that’s based on ignorant, knee-jerk emotional prejudice, nor will we tolerate a campaign based on adulation of a “great leader.” (Or perhaps, North Korean style, Trump should be hailed as “Yuge Leader.”)

That’s not because we’re members of “the establishment.” It is precisely because we are looking for a genuine alternative to the compromising, pragmatist, go-along-to-get-along leadership, and Trump is currently sucking all of the oxygen out of that search. New poll data shows that he is mostly taking away support, not from Jeb Bush, but from the alternatives to Bush, all of whom are better, worthier candidates than Trump.

Which means it’s time to stop playing Trump’s media game and stop talking about him—and start talking about everybody else.

In the last presidential cycle, the primaries were a competition to find the Not-Romney, the alternative to the moderate, establishment candidate with all of the big fundraising. This cycle started out as a competition to be the Not-Bush, with Jeb Bush in the Mitt Romney role. But then Trump entered the race, and now the competition is for who can occupy the space in between—who can be the Not-Trump-Not-Bush. Who can stand next to Bush and look like a radical who will overturn the status quo—and stand next to Trump and look reasonable, safe, and serious?

We’re going to have to coalesce around a third alternative candidate, and we’d better start figuring out who.

Because that’s how this is probably going to shake out. Trump is unlikely to get the nomination. He has a history too full of flip-flops on the big issues and a personality too full of off-putting negative qualities. He’s an early protest candidate, but not the guy you actually want for the general election. Those motivated by raw, inchoate anger, and not too particularly about whom they choose as a vessel for it, will go to Trump. Those who recoil to the safety of the status quo will support Jeb Bush. The rest of us will eventually have to coalesce around a third alternative candidate. So we’d better start figuring out who that person is going to be.

Let’s put it this way. If you want the Republican Party to stand for something, and not for someone, who is your candidate? Let’s run down the possibilities.

Ben Carson: The Anti-Trump

The fact that Ben Carson has surged at the same time as Trump and is now a clear second in the polls is a measure of the extent to which the grassroots wants a political outsider. Like Trump, Carson is someone who has a record of success and achievement outside of politics, who got people’s attention for giving impassioned speeches, for being occasionally a little too free with his opinions, and for his personality. The difference is the personality. While Trump is crude, abrasive, boastful, and prickly, Carson is modest and pleasant. Charles Krauthammer calls him the anti-Trump: “He is the ultimate gentle, soft-spoken family doctor…. He’s a completely wonderful guy that is hard not to actually like.”

The problem, of course, is the same as with Trump. What makes him interesting, the fact that he’s a political outsider, is also his biggest drawback. We don’t know whether he would be successful at campaigning or at championing legislation or at managing government agencies, because he’s never done it. More important, we don’t know what decisions he would really make under the intense pressures of the office.

A political outsider can promise whatever he likes, with no record to contradict him.

The great advantage of being a political outsider is that you have no voting record. You can promise the public whatever you like, and there’s no track record to contradict you. But for the voter, that should actually be less comforting, because we’re hiring someone based on what he tells us rather than what he’s actually done. That’s a problem for Carson in the same way it’s a problem for Trump. Both men have issues on which they sound staunch and resolute now, but on which they once held different positions. For Carson, those issues are abortion and guns. This is proof that you don’t have to be elected to office yet to be a politician.

I’m more comfortable with someone who has a track record on the difficult decisions, so I can tell what he would really do when push comes to shove.

This brings us to the other outsider candidate.

Carly Fiorina: The Executive

Carly Fiorina has also been rising in the polls. She didn’t make the top ten for the first Republican debate, but her spirited performance in the “kids’ table” debate got her noticed, and she’s now around fifth or sixth in most polls.

Her personality is more sharp-edged than Carson’s, more polished and less abrasive than Trump’s. But what gets attention is her quick wit and command of the facts and issues. When Trump had his embarrassing foreign policy interview with Hugh Hewitt, the host asked Fiorina onto the show to answer the same questions, and she demonstrated a much more detailed knowledge. It was exactly the kind of performance you would expect from a former top-level business executive, who is used to doing her homework and having all the facts at her fingertips. Among other things, this should put to rest any suggestion that we have to make a choice between someone who’s strong and decisive and someone who is factually up to speed on the issues.

Yet Carly Fiorina has much the same problem as all the other outsider candidates: great rhetoric, but no actual track record in political office against which to match her words. And worse, she has run for office once—a 2010 Senate race—and lost. To be sure, that was in California, which is a tough environment for a Republican. But it still raises questions about her ability to campaign and win.

Major parties have very rarely chosen a candidate who has never held elected office.

A brief review of the history of presidential campaigns indicates that major parties have very rarely chosen a candidate who has never held elected office or a prominent executive position, and even more rarely have such candidates won. You can see why. You don’t send someone to the World Series who has never played a Major League game, much less won one. Of the non-politicians who did win, virtually all were military commanders who won major wars (e.g., Grant and Eisenhower), and there’s no one like that in the current contest.

So if we discount the outsider candidates as symbols of the discontent of the conservative base but long shots for the actual nomination, who does that leave us among the politicians with a track record?

First, I’m going to make a few more cuts. I’ll cut out the minor vanity candidates who have no real constituency and no reason to run, guys like Jim Gilmore and George Pataki (who have so little support they don’t even show up on the RCP poll averages), as well as Lindsey Graham and Bobby Jindal (an interesting and well-qualified governor who just isn’t getting any traction), and Rick Santorum (who had his turn as the Not-Romney last time around, but seems like yesterday’s news this time). If something happens to bring any of these candidates back into the running, I’ll cover them. Until then, let’s move on.

Chris Christie must feel the way you would if the guy behind you in line bought the winning lottery ticket.

I’ll also leave out Chris Christie and John Kasich, because neither really serves our purpose. If we don’t like Jeb Bush because he’s too liberal and moderate, then we’re definitely not looking for Kasich, because that’s his whole shtick. As for Chris Christie, he must feel exactly the way you would if the guy just behind you at the quickie mart bought the winning lottery ticket. Voters were supposed to fall in love with the combative, abrasive, loud-mouthed guy from New Jersey, not the combative, abrasive, loud-mouthed guy from New York. But on policy issues like immigration and global warming, Christie is also too much of a moderate to serve as a credible alternative to Bush.

All Christie has is his willingness to take on public employees’ unions in his state, but even there, someone else has stolen the issue from him. Which bring us to the first of the politically experienced Not-Trump-Not-Bush candidates.

Scott Walker: He Fights! Or Not

If the big selling point for Trump is supposed to be that HE FIGHTS™, that’s also supposed to be the basis of Scott Walker’s presidential run. Except that unlike Trump, Walker has actually done it while in office and while winning three elections in a row. Walker famously took on the public employees’ unions in Wisconsin and defeated them, curtailing excessive pay and pension demands and bringing the state’s budget under control. If we want a guy who has proven he can confront the entrenched clients of big government and kick them in the teeth, Scott Walker is supposed to the one.

Scott Walker has been running his campaign as if he is scared of his own shadow.

So why has he been running his campaign as if he is scared of his own shadow? The trouble began early, when Walker dropped a widely respected campaign adviser because of a few tweets she made which challenged Iowa Republicans’ sense of political entitlement. It was such a tempest in a teacup, such a small issue, that Walker’s quick retreat raised a lot of eyebrows (among the few who were paying attention) and seemed a sign of things to come.

Then came the rise of Donald Trump, which presented Walker with a choice. Trump was gaining in the polls with a virulent anti-immigration message, but Walker had a history as a moderate, even a liberal, on immigration. So would he defend his own previous views, would he pander to Trump’s supporters, or would he try to land down somewhere in between?

The answer was: all of the above. He seemingly opposed birthright citizenship, though this may be attributable to his verbal tick of automatically replying “yeah” to acknowledge a question, a habit familiar to Wisconsin reporters but not the national press. Then again, maybe he really did say it. Then he backtracked to his more moderate position, then he tried to split the difference.

Walker’s campaign has time to recover, but he has to take the story of how he fought and won in Wisconsin, and tell Republicans what issues he’s going to fight and win on nationally. If he can’t do that—and so far, he hasn’t—then the whole rationale for his candidacy evaporates.

Ted Cruz: The Thinking Man’s Radical

If Donald Trump seems unprepared and often inarticulate and ungrammatical—and if his supporters back him by proclaiming how great it is not to have a wimpy book nerd running for office—the candidate who seems most unlike him in that respect is Ted Cruz. A Harvard graduate and college debate champ, Cruz is a book nerd par excellence, and his greatest strength is his ability to be smoothly articulate under fire.

Cruz doesn’t whine about “gotcha questions,” he shoots them down.

He doesn’t whine about “gotcha questions,” he shoots them down with sharp, thoughtful answers. Check out his response to a pair of activists trying to ambush him on global warming. If Trump seems to be in a war against the right-leaning punditry, Cruz is the one who makes a lot of us happy by giving the intelligent explanations we hope we could come up with if we ran for office.

And yet, there is a question about Cruz’s character. He is undeniably an ideological candidate whose platform is a smorgasbord of red meat for the right, but on top of that ideology is an element of naked personal ambition.

We can see this in his response to Donald Trump. He has suddenly discovered that it is bad etiquette to criticize other Republican candidates—something that never stopped him before—once that meant criticizing Trump. He even went so far as to join forces with Trump in headlining a rally in New York against the Iran deal. Obviously, his strategy is to position himself as the next best option for Trump’s supporters if and when Trump leaves the race.

However shrewd that calculation is, it raises the question of whether Cruz is willing to place his personal ambition above principle—which he will most certainly have to do if he wants to stay in Trump’s ideologically erratic wake.

Rand Paul: Man of the (Previous) Moment

Rand Paul is the candidate of the “libertarian moment” in Republican politics. He is a product of the Obama era’s rapprochement between conservatives and libertarians, an alliance forged in the Tea Party movement, where both wings found they could make common cause against bank bailouts and socialized medicine.

But the Trump phenomenon, while it probably won’t make Yuge Leader the nominee, has re-opened the gap between conservatives and libertarians. It gave the “paleo-conservative” wing of the right a small taste of what it’s like to have a candidate who would speak openly in their voice and promise them their fondest wishes, and that makes them less willing to accept compromises and overlook deviations.

Rand Paul is looking like the man of a moment that has passed.

This has left Rand Paul looking like the man of a moment that has passed. The opportunity for Rand Paul, though, is to reorient himself to the new environment and establish himself as the champion for the libertarian wing of the right. I don’t think he should go negative, because that’s Trump’s preferred territory: nobody can beat him at insulting and berating his opponents, and they shouldn’t try. But next time around, Paul should spend less time sparring with Chris Christie over surveillance and more time correcting Trump, with a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, about issues like immigration and protectionism. His goal should be to salvage what he can of that “libertarian moment.”

Moreover, after the 2012 election, there was a strong consensus among Republican leaders that they needed to do more “outreach” to black and Hispanic voters, and Rand Paul was in the forefront. He didn’t always get a friendly reception, but he showed up and made his case, which is the first step. He has been particularly strong where the concerns of racial minorities—such as police abuses and excessive incarceration—have overlapped with Paul’s libertarian concerns about excessive state power.

But by coming out unapologetically as the voice of angry blue-collar whites, Donald Trump has rejected this whole approach—and in the process, he is playing right into the hands of the Democrats, whose long-term electoral strategy is to heighten racial divisions in an attempt to maintain a death grip on the minority vote. Paul should be calling Trump out on this and reminding Republicans that you don’t win elections by broadcasting your contempt for whole categories of voters.

Rick Perry: The Test of Endurance

I’ll admit that I’m still pining a little for the Rick Perry candidacy that might have been in 2012. Sensing the opportunity—a great longing for the Not-Romney—Perry jumped into the last primary contest before he was really prepared, and he paid the price for it. His early surge in popularity faded when he proved less than articulate on some key issues.

This seems almost funny in retrospect, now that we have Donald Trump garbling the English language at every available opportunity and still leading in the polls. I think you can blame Republican primary voters last time around for giving up on Perry too quickly, and I’m afraid they’re doing it again.

Voters gave up on Perry too quickly the last time, and now they’re doing it again.

On paper, Perry is a great candidate and not just an establishment pushover. He pursued a low-tax, low-regulation agenda to turn Texas into a powerhouse of economic growth and growth in employment, winning him three terms in office. As governor of the state with the largest border with Mexico, he has had to take the issue of illegal immigration seriously—yet he has managed to do so in a way that does not insult and alienate his state’s Hispanic voters. He should be a top-tier candidate.

The key for Perry is whether he can avoid giving up on himself before the voters get a chance to rediscover him. He’s a better-prepared candidate this time around, but he has gotten lost in the vast crowd of rivals, and he has particularly suffered from conservatives jumping ship to Trump. Yet it’s worth remembering that at roughly this point two cycles ago, before he went on to earn the nomination, John McCain’s campaign was so low on money that he gave up his private jet and carried his own bags—not as an artificial man-of-the-people stunt, but because he had to. So it’s a reminder that sometimes the campaign is a test of endurance and rewards the candidate whose is able to stick around until voters are ready to reconsider him.

Marco Rubio: Not Quite Not Bush

Marco Rubio started out his career in national politics with solid Tea Party credentials by taking down an establishment Republican Senate candidate, Charlie Crist, an opportunistic moderate who later defected to the Democrats. But Rubio is also a longtime ally of Jeb Bush, who was governor of Florida when Rubio was rising up through the state legislature. And he is the Republican candidate who is perhaps most perfectly honed for the general election rather than the primaries: he is good looking, with a pleasant, wholesome demeanor, and his answers tend to be polished in that traditional politicians’ way, calculated to signal support to the grassroots without saying anything that might be offensive to the general public. If Donald Trump’s willingness to offend is considered proof of his being “genuine,” then by that standard Rubio is bound to seem artificial.

And yet, Rubio doesn’t really hold views that would be considered heretical by the Republican grassroots—except on immigration, where he once sponsored a reform compromise with Democrats. It wasn’t just that his immigration bill was too liberal for the grassroots. It was the fact that it was badly negotiated, giving too many concessions to Senate Democrats and too few to skeptical Republicans. It was exactly the kind of compromise you would expect from a me-too, go-along-to-get-along establishment politician. Even those like me, who are more liberal on immigration, wondered whether this was a sign of how he would handle issues we care more about.

The irony of the Trump campaign, though, is that it will probably end up pushing the Republican Party toward a more liberal immigration policy. Trump’s contemptuous attitude toward Latin American immigrants, combined with the small cadre of outright bigots he has inspired on social media, will put  Republicans so far into a hole with Hispanic voters that they will look for a general election candidate who can dig them out. Ideally, they would find one who can converse with these voters in fluent Spanish, of which there are only two: Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Rubio is definitely Not-Trump. Can he pull off being Not-Quite-Bush?

So Rubio could potentially find a sweet spot where he is considered safe and responsible by the establishment, but is not really reviled by the grassroots because his name isn’t “Bush.” He’s definitely a Not-Trump, and he just might pull off being a Not-Quite-Bush. But it would definitely help if he stopped worrying so much about seeming safe in the general election and did more to show primary voters he’s willing to disrupt the state quo.

My purpose here is not to pick a winner in the Not-Trump-Not-Bush primary, but to help get the process started, narrowing down the search and helping to define the issues. All of these candidates have their problems, but remember the first commandment of the right: place not thy faith in politicians. Let others trade in adulation of a Great Leader, while we look for something more rare and valuable: a halfway decent politician.

Follow Robert on Twitter.