Conservatives are taking their lumps with more grace than I thought they would. Perhaps the pleasure of seeing Hillary and the entire Clintonone Family go down—one hopes never to rise again—provides significant, and unexpectedly powerful, consolation. I know it would have for me had I been anti-Trump.
However, a strain of residual bitterness remains that says: “Any Republican would have won.” This is the logical extension of the pre-November 8 argument, “Trump is the only Republican in that field who could have lost to Hillary.”
I’m not buying it. First, what makes anyone think that the man who won all those primaries, against the “best Republican field in history” (we were told endlessly), would have run worse in the general against all the others in that defeated field? True, Trump was not racking up huge majorities in most of those primaries.
But by definition, his opponents weren’t either: they were doing worse. How does that translate into a later big win? Trump, in Paul Ryan’s words, “heard a voice that no one else did.” He was able turn that into enthusiasm and votes. Why should we expect that the others would have, come November, accomplished with the whole electorate what they could not accomplish with their own party between February and June?
A main anti-Trump argument all along was that Trump would be a loser on the magnitude of Goldwater or McGovern. The point here is not to recriminate or name names. It’s to note that many of the people who made that argument have now shifted its terms. The new twist goes: Trump is so bad, it proves that any of the others, all of whom were better, would have won going away.
Really? The election turned on four states, one of which no Republican had won since 1984 (Wisconsin), two since 1988 (Michigan, Pennsylvania), and one since 2004 (Ohio)—the latter by a mere 2 percent, or 100,000 votes. If that one state had flipped, John Kerry would have been president. Trump by contrast won Ohio by almost eight points. And, with the exception of an Ohio-Pennsylvania combination, he would have had to lose three of those four states to lose the election.
Who else was in a position to keep every state Romney won, add Florida and Iowa, plus at least two of the Rust Belt Four? I won’t go through the entire, overstuffed field. I’ll just look at a few of the more prominent candidates, in order of their dropping out.
Scott Walker—At least he was from the upper Midwest, so he might seem the most likely. But he had two fatal flaws. First, his position on immigration began as terrible and evolved into merely incoherent. At best, he’s never thought about the issue. At worst, like his fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan, he’s an open-borders guy. Whatever the case, as the early campaign progressed, he realized that he had to move right on the issue and tried to do so, but never convinced anyone he was sincere. Trump by contrast, for all his inconsistencies, came off as sincerely committed to the issue. That surely helped him win those Big Four. Second, for all Walker’s apparent talents as a governor, he never showed the requisite charisma or stage presence to make it as a national candidate. Say what you will about Trump, he has those qualities in spades.
Jeb Bush—Really? Does a case need to be made here? More war, more immigration, more trade. Everything you didn’t like about Romney and McCain, only more. In what possible way did this fit the national mood, much less the mood of the Republican base or the Party’s working class converts?
Marco Rubio—The strongest case here is that he outpolled Clinton nationally the entire time he was in the race. Is that decisive? I think not. Do I need to remind anyone about the limits of polling exposed by this election? That aside, even if every Rubio-Clinton head-to-head poll had been accurate, they were taken eight months before the actual vote. Why should we believe those numbers would have held? Especially since Rubio, no less than Jeb, was for the same more-more-more program that the base hates. And, unlike Jeb, Rubio had not merely his fingerprints but his name on the Gang of Eight bill.
John Kasich—Perhaps he would have won Ohio (though friends who know the state very much dispute this). But otherwise has campaign had two defining characteristics. First, he was running the Huntsman 2012, McCain 2000 strategy: I hate and am embarrassed by my Party. No wonder he didn’t get the nomination! We’re supposed to believe he would have done better in the general? Held all of Romney’s states (North Carolina?) and picked up either Pennsylvania or Wisconsin and Michigan? Not likely, because the other characteristic of his campaign was to further the donor class agenda, just like Jeb and Marco, only with a greater left wing tilt.
That leaves Ted Cruz, the last man standing. Here I think there really was a chance at a Goldwater-level defeat. One may agree with all or most of Cruz’s positions, as I do, but understand those positions are no longer (if they ever were) capable of building a national majority. Cruz was the candidate of the pure. Purist Republicanism has been turning off blue collar voters for a generation. It’s impossible to imagine Ted Cruz winning even one of the Rust Belt states that Trump won, while it’s quite possible to imagine him losing Florida and even North Carolina.
Honorable Mention: Mitt Romney—Hahahahaha. No, seriously: Hahahahaha. I firmly believe that Romney is a good, even virtuous man. In 2012, I voted for him without the slightest reservation and even with some enthusiasm. But was Mr. Private-Equity-Layoff-King going to flip Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin in 2016? Hahahahaha.
No, none of these guys would have beaten Hillary. Trump won for many reasons, not least that he saw the essential connectivity between trade, war, and immigration and how they are felt and interpreted by a hitherto ignored class of voters. None of the other candidates even came close, or attempted, anything like that. There are other reasons why Trump won and they could not have. But that’s the biggest.
This is a talking point that Conservatism, Inc. needs to drop. Rather than medicating themselves with this nonsense, they should continue to take consolation and even joy in the glorious fact of Clinton, Inc.’s demise. That and expand their imaginations to look for ways they might celebrate and contribute to at least some, if not all, of Trump’s coming victories.