Where are the crowds of conservatives?

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Conservatives' Third Party Is Going Nowhere

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Some conservatives are so upset by Donald Trump's triumph that they're seeking a third-party candidate from the right. William Kristol, the ubiquitous conservative operative/editor of the Weekly Standard, met privately with 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney last week to "discuss the possibility of launching an independent bid, potentially with Romney as its standard-bearer," the Washington Post reported. Kristol had previously tried to woo retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, who apparently demurred.

There is something nutty about this, and not simply because third-party candidates face a difficult road in American politics. Kristol and like-minded conservatives are seeking a vehicle for a conservative candidate for only one reason: The nation's conservative party just rejected more than a dozen opportunities to nominate someone acceptable to them.

In other words, having started the primary season with more than a dozen champions, then having failed to win the competition within the conservative party, these conservatives are now eager to compete in the even less receptive arena outside the conservative party. You can't say they lack gumption.   

One potential independent candidate, mentioned by Kristol and others, is Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who is a stalwart of the #neverTrump camp. Sasse published an open letter on his Facebook page laying out the need for an independent run.

Melissa and I got the kids launched on homework, so I’ve been sitting out by the river, reflecting on the great gap between what folks in my town are talking about, and what folks in the DC bubble are talking about.

Sasse treats us to the wisdom of his local townfolk, who are tired of all the goings-on in Washington, don't cotton to Trump or his likely Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, and are, as the caricature demands, bursting with small-town virtue and plain common sense.

Perhaps when you have a Ph.D in philosophy from Yale, and represent a rural state, as Sasse does, these are the conventions you resort to. But much of Sasse's Facebook post reads like a road map of conservative self-delusion.

"With Clinton and Trump," he wrote, "the fix is in. Heads, they win; tails, you lose. Why are we confined to these two terrible options? This is America. If both choices stink, we reject them and go bigger. That’s what we do."

Republican voters in every region of the country, over the course of many months, chose Trump over 16 conservative opponents. That is the fix. In effect, options have been acted upon. Choices have been made. Sasse just happens to be about a year late to the decision desk.

Sasse proceeded to outline four "big national problems" that a common-sense independent candidate should focus on:

♦ National security "for the age of cyber and jihad;"

♦ "Honest budgeting/entitlement reform so that we stop stealing from future generations;"

♦ "Empowering states and local governments to improve K-12 education" while Washington updates lifetime learning programs;

♦ "Retiring career politicians by ending all the incumbency protections, special rules, and revolving door opportunities for folks who should be public 'servants,' not masters."

"This really shouldn’t be that hard," Sasse concluded.

Debate over what to do about each problem he cited divides his own party, let alone the nation at large. Remarkably, Sasse failed to include the conservatives' great unifying theme, Obamacare, on his list. When he launched his Senate campaign in 2013, he certainly recognized its dramatic appeal. “If it lives," Sasse said of the Affordable Care Act, "America as we know it will die.”

Good grief.

This, of course, is precisely the sort of overwrought, Palinesque gibberish that has brought conservatism into disrepute.

Consensus on Sasse's four issues isn't impossible. For example, according to Gallup data, to protect Social Security, voters consistently prefer raising taxes to cutting benefits. Congressional Republicans, however, want the opposite. Are Sasse and his GOP colleagues ready to join the American consensus? (It's not that hard.)

Sasse and Kristol have every reason and right to turn their backs on Trump. But the notion that the nation needs a political party pure enough for their conservatism seems to get the problem exactly wrong. We already have such a party. If their brand of conservatism failed there, it failed, period.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net