The GOP is not facing a debate over policy, but rather a hostile takeover by a pernicious force. Traditional Republicans are now presented with a series of deeply flawed options. And serving the party’s ideals may eventually require leaving it, at least for a season.
Donald Trump is winning the Republican nomination but not sweeping to it. Across the states that have voted so far, he has gotten 34 percent of the vote and is barely on track to get the requisite 1,237 delegates in order to win outright at the Cleveland convention.
Under normal circumstances, a clear plurality would begin to gather into a majority, as elements of the GOP internally reconcile to the likely nominee. These are not normal circumstances. A significant group of Republicans – look at #NeverTrump on Twitter – cannot support Trump. This is not, as in 1964 or 1980, a clash over ideology. It is a moral objection to the return of nativism, religious prejudice and misogyny to the center stage of American politics.
So what are anti-Trump Republicans – Republicans who want their nominee to sound more like Abraham Lincoln and less like George Wallace or Marine Le Pen – to do?
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Option 1: Support the candidate in second place, in the hope of beating Trump’s plurality with more votes and delegates.
“We may be in a position,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, “where we have to rally around Ted Cruz as the only way to stop Donald Trump.” Marco Rubio, in this argument, simply hasn’t risen to the moment. And at least Cruz is a legitimate Republican.
But anyone concerned about Trump’s nativism will find it very difficult to support Cruz, who has criticized Trump for being too soft on illegal immigration. Cruz would be a weak candidate against Hillary Clinton. His 100-proof conservatism is not to everyone’s taste. And, as one South Carolina Republican told me, he seems “covered in a thick layer of people repellant.”
Option 2: Even if Trump’s plurality can’t be beaten by a single candidate, deny him a majority of delegates at the convention and stop him there.
On Super Tuesday, after all, Trump lost four states and significantly underperformed his pre-election polling in Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas. And the electoral terrain gets less favorable to Trump from here on.
The immediate problem here is that Trump may win Ohio or Florida (he is polling ahead in both) on March 15, which would probably doom this strategy. And if Trump goes into the convention with a strong plurality but is denied the nomination, it is easy to imagine a Republican convention with all the unity and decorum of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention.
Option 3: Support a center-right, third-party candidate for president who would represent a civil rights Republicanism and hold the core message of the party in trust for better days.
This approach would depend on finding a strong candidate who is willing to engage in an important but (given the history of such efforts) losing effort. A Mitt Romney candidacy would smack too much of an establishment bent on revenge. In contrast, Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, would carry a winsome, disciplined, conservative message. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would stand for everything Trump does not – gravity, dignity, character and serious moral purpose.
But why would anyone serious take such a thankless and difficult role? It would be a heroic act of self-sacrifice for the sake of the party and the country. And this candidate would probably have no political future, since he or she might tip a close election toward Clinton (which would, in fact, be part of the motivation).
Option 4: Essentially sit out the election, wait for Trump to lose (he is behind Clinton in most national polls) and participate in the GOP reconstruction.
The problem here? Clinton is actually a dismal candidate, involved in an ongoing FBI investigation concerning the handling of classified material. A Clinton-Trump race raises the small but serious prospect of a Trump presidency.
There is, in fact, no clear or morally satisfying option for Republicans. Option 2 is the obvious choice for the next two weeks. If it comes to it, a convention battle is worth having to save the party. But if Ohio or Florida falls to Trump, anti-Trump Republicans are likely to face a choice between voting for Clinton or supporting a third-party candidate.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.