With Donald Trump continuing to dominate the field, the Republican presidential primary is beginning to resemble a thought experiment gone awry.
Imagine a group of Republican die-hards sitting down over a few beers and chatting about politics. One of them asks the rest, “Okay, is it possible to imagine a candidate who is so manifestly unqualified, so frightening to imagine in the Oval Office, that if he or she got the nomination, you would vote for the Democrat instead?”
There would be plenty of vows that ANYBODY would be better than a Democrat. But if the issue were pressed, most reasonable people would concede that somewhere near the bottom of the Republican barrel, there must be someone who would actually be worse than a run-of-the-mill Democrat.
The same experiment could be repeated with a bunch of boozy Democrats, and it would likely have the same result. Protests that ANYBODY is better than a Republican would eventually give way to agreement that somewhere in Democratic party, there must be someone who’d be a worse president than a mainstream Republican.
The difference is that right now the GOP is hurtling toward a real-life version of the thought experiment.
This was made clear on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, when former Florida governor Jeb Bush was asked about Trump. Bush, the brother and son of two former presidents, has been among the most forceful of Trump’s critics within the ranks of the GOP’s slate of candidates. He spent a considerable amount of time enumerating his rival’s shortcomings:
- “Look, I just think he’s uninformed ... He knows what he’s saying. He’s smart. He’s playing you guys like a fiddle – the press – by saying outrageous things and garnering attention. That’s his strategy … to dominate the news.”
- “The simple fact is that he’s been wrong on Syria, and on the refugees, pretty consistently, and no one’s holding him to account. “
- “[I]n these serious times, he’s not a serious leader.”
- “I have grave doubts about Donald Trump’s ability to be commander in chief. I really do.”
- “I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt to see how the campaign unfolded, but you listen to him talk, it’s kind of scary to be honest with you.”
- “He doesn’t talk about the issues at hand that are of national security importance for our country to keep us safe is the first priority of the president, and he’s all over the map. He’s misinformed at best and playing on peoples’ fear at worst.”
Asked by host John Dickerson to justify his promise that he would still support Trump if the billionaire former reality television star were to win the nomination, Bush immediately fell back on the old standard.
“Because anybody’s better than Hillary Clinton, let me be clear about that,” he said.
Pressed further, Bush wouldn’t explain why a man who he had previously said he wouldn’t trust with the nuclear weapons launch codes would be a better president that Clinton, the former secretary of state and the current Democratic frontrunner, he defaulted to the assumption that Trump won’t win the nomination.
“I’ll let the voters decide on Donald Trump,” said Bush. “I’m pretty confident that the more they hear of him, the less likely it is that he’s going to get the Republican nomination.”
The same strategy was on display on ABC’s This Week, when Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who, like Bush, has been more direct in attacking Trump than many of his fellow candidates. Nevertheless, Kasich avoided answering host Martha Raddatz’s repeated questions about whether he would support Trump if he got the GOP nomination.
“He’s not going to,” Kasich insisted. “So we’re not even going to go there.”
The reason behind the reluctance of GOP candidates to say they wouldn’t support Trump is obvious. The loudmouthed billionaire’s counterattacks are vicious and effective. He has between 25 and 30 percent support in national polls, and if he eventually drops out, candidates like Bush and Kasich hope they can pick up some of his supporters. Plus, an admission that they would vote for a Democrat under any circumstances would immediately be turned against them by their opponents in attack ads and on the debate stage.
On the other hand, in a campaign where traditional politicians like Bush and Kasich have struggled to find traction, a principled stand against a potential nominee that both seem to find unfit for the presidency would show leadership and might actually inspire some support among the 70 to 75 percent of GOP voters who aren’t currently in the Trump camp.
The choice between Trump and a Democrat is clearly one both men hope they never have to make, but taking a stand on the issue now could help prevent the thought experiment from becoming reality.