The 2016 presidential cycle has not been kind to movement conservatives. Despite having a bounty of options for a potential Republican nominee, the strongest candidates fell out of the race early.
Governors with clear track records of conservative reform, such as Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal, never even got close to an electoral contest. Rick Perry’s attempt at a comeback suffered a similar fate, in part due to uncertainty over a politicized indictment later dismissed by an appeals court. Jeb Bush had a huge war chest but quickly lost the first battles and withdrew.
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The race came down to Donald Trump’s populist campaign and two first-term Senators, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, neither of whom could slow down the Trump juggernaut despite attempts late in the cycle to generate some sort of unity behind them.
The rational conclusion from this experience should be recognition among movement conservatives that Republican voters do not place nearly as much value on ideology or policy as once assumed. The collection of conservatives who make up the #NeverTrump movement has instead argued that general-election voters faced with a choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton would yearn for a third option that represents traditional conservative values.
A serious candidate in that mold, they insist, would attract enough voters to disrupt the election and deny either Trump or Clinton an Electoral College win, if not win the White House outright.
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Theoretically speaking, it’s possible, although one would have to do it without Texas, whose ballot access closed two weeks ago. But what national figure would agree to take on such a campaign, someone whose personality and familiarity could command millions to think outside the two-party box and strike a blow for serious conservatives?
David French! … David French?
In the wake of this reveal, plenty of people poked fun at French, as well as at Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol for anointing French as the latest #NeverTrump savior. That’s unfair to both men. French is hardly an unknown in conservative circles, both as a writer at National Review and as someone involved in Republican campaigns. Both men have served the movement with distinction and honor, and French has also done the same in the U.S. military. Most people may not know that.
And … that’s precisely the problem. At a time when intellectual movement conservatism faces a crisis of engagement, the French proposal all but cements the conclusion that the movement has completely lost touch with voters – and, quite possibly, reality.
French is a well-known writer and activist within the intellectual core of the conservative movement, but nearly unknown outside of those circles. Those circles had no impact in the primary cycle of the Republican Party, where their influence would presumably reach its apex. Offering French as a man whose force of influence could offer a major recalculation of the general election might seem to some within those circles as an act of conscience and principle.
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To the rest of America, though, it reeks of denial, and also desperation. Mitt Romney, a former candidate with considerable personal resources and residual voter loyalty from four years ago, favors the idea of an independent conservative candidate … but refuses to accept that mantle himself. The #NeverTrump activists have approached others publicly, such as Senator Ben Sasse and retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, only to be rebuffed.
It reduces conservatism to a stunt, a gimmick, and one that could do more damage than all of the good Kristol and French authentically hope to accomplish.
Gone is the pretense of finding proven political leadership or the resources needed for a serious independent bid. In its place is the urge to find anyone willing to run, even if it’s impossible to have any impact at all. It reduces conservatism to a stunt, a gimmick, and one that could do more damage than all of the good Kristol and French authentically hope to accomplish.
While the movement’s leaders have legitimate concerns about what the rise of populism means within the GOP and for this country, Republican voters by and large aren’t fretting over it. Polls over the past few weeks show GOP voters coalescing behind the nominee at a normal pace – and faster than they did in 1980 behind Reagan. The fight over the soul of the GOP, at least in terms of its presidential nomination, is over for them. And these are the very voters on which the French bid would have to rely for enough support to matter.
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If movement conservatives want to restore their influence, both within and outside of the Republican Party, they need to engage voters in their communities and on the ground. Those activists need to make conservative policies and principles relevant in the lives of voters, not through sound bites about values but through actual solutions to issues in their communities based on those values. That will make conservatism relevant, and its success will give voters a guidepost in national elections.
Some groups on the right, most notably the free-market group Americans for Prosperity, have already begun that kind of granular engagement, but most have not taken that approach. The results speak for themselves in the 2016 Republican primary. Voters didn’t have much emotional connection to movement conservatism, but had plenty of emotional connection to populism, borne of frustration from being ignored over the last several years. That is their reality, and their response to it is entirely rational, even if many dislike that choice, and some choose denial even at this late stage over the fact that the choices are set.
Denying reality doesn’t make conservatism relevant. It relegates it to fantasy. At the very moment when conservatives need to comprehend how marginalized they have become, even among the voters best positioned for sympathy with their positions, they are instead constructing ever more elaborate ways to engage in that denial.