It's time to call a spade a spade: the #NeverTrump movement that was dominating the Twitter-verse and seemed to actually have a chance (however minuscule) of obstructing Donald Trump from winning the Republican presidential nomination is dead. No amount of hopeful optimism from the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol can recover what the #NeverTrump movement lost.
For traditionalist and establishment Republicans, this is an terribly difficult message to swallow. But swallow it they must despite the fact that Trump is the epitome of everything that conservatives despise. Trump's malleability and flip-flopping on social and economic issues; his perceived coddling of autocrats like Russia's Vladimir Putin; his willingness to buck the conventional wisdom in Washington on the value of America's alliances; and his past support for abortion as a Democratic donor in the 1990's are the traits of a poster-boy presidential candidate who can’t make up his mind. Some top-dollar GOP fundraisers who usually have no problem opening their checkpoints for Republican candidates remain reticent or outright opposed to Trump as their nominee precisely for these reasons.
And yet all of the concerns about Trump's propensity to ditch conservative philosophy aside, a growing number of establishment Republicans who were previously opposed to Trump's candidacy are now rallying around him as the only vehicle to defeat Hillary Clinton in November. With the exception of Speaker Paul Ryan, the House Republican leadership has found a seat aboard the Trump train. Some of the very people who were working so tirelessly to prevent Trump from reaching the 1,237 delegate threshold are now asking to become campaign advisers — likely in the hope that, if Trump wins the presidency, they will have a chance of landing a job in the White House.
Never Trumpsters are now grasping at straws. Bill Kristol (hardly a conventional conservative himself) continues to advocate for a third-party ticket on which a principled conservative traditionalist like Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse could run and perhaps win the presidency through the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. "[I]t is not too late to give Republican voters, a majority of whom have not supported Donald Trump in the primaries, an alternative," Kristol wrote in a Weekly Standard editorial. "An independent Republican candidate can help prevent the conflation of the Republican Party with Trump and of conservatism with Trumpism."
David French of the National Review — a lawyer and conservative writer who is now being courted by Kristol, seemingly for the lack of any better alternative — has gone one step further by openly pleading for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney to run one last time in order to save the conservative movement. In French's words, "Mitt Romney is the only man who combines the integrity, financial resources, name recognition, and broad public support to make a realistic independent run at the presidency." Conservative blogger Erick Erickson has played around with Romney's name as well: the former Massachusetts Governor and GOP nominee may be an imperfect candidate, Erickson argues, but he is surely better than Donald Trump representing the Republican Party.
Because they are running out of hope, the leaders of the #NeverTrump movement are using several recent polls to buttress their argument that a third-party candidate is an option that Americans would go for. According to Data Targeting, a polling firm, 55 percent of those surveyed would like to see an independent presidential candidate. A Washington Post/ABC News poll had Mitt Romney starting out with 22 percent of the popular vote, a sizable share before he would even begin campaigning on the trail.
The question, of course, is whether Mitt Romney would consider a third consecutive bid for the presidency after having lost twice in 2008 and 2012. Romney's flirtation with a 2016 candidacy earlier in the year was a sign that he still believes that he would make a great president. And if you asked him privately, it's highly likely that he would argue that he has the attributes, skills, temperament, and experience to fill the shoes of Commander-in-Chief.
Thinking about running before the primaries start and actually making the decision to jump in after the GOP electorate has chosen their candidate, however, are completely different things.
Whether fair or not, Romney entering the race at this late stage would throw sand in the gears of a Republican National Committee and a Republican caucus on Capitol Hill that are slowly making amends with the fact that Trump will be their nominee in the fall. When RNC Chairman Reince Priebus called an independent candidacy a “suicide mission" to the Republican Party's chances in November, he was probably right; Romney would attract a far greater number of voters from Trump than from Hillary Clinton’s camp, effectively splitting GOP support in the general election and providing Clinton with a golden opportunity to easily win the presidency. Why Mitt Romney would want to be blamed for tanking the Republican Party for the second presidential election cycle in a row is anyone's guess. No member of the #NeverTrump camp has thus far come up with an answer to that question. Nor have die-hard conservative activists been able to argue persuasively that the #NeverTrump movement is still living and breathing and that Romney — or any other high-profile Republican politician — would want to grab the reigns of the anti-Trump crusade and run with it. Romney sees the handwriting on the wall: when Ben Sasse, former Gen. James Mattis, and Sen. Tom Coburn all declined invitations to be lead the crusade, Romney likely concluded that a third try in November would be a futile mission.
Whether Bill Kristol, Erick Erickson, and the editors of the National Review like it or not, Donald Trump is the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for President of the United States—and he got there by winning over many more Republican primary voters than any of the alternatives Kristol et. al. have trotted out so far. The #NeverTrump camp can either continue to search for a white knight who has the stamina, tenacity and resources to actually win electoral votes in November, or they can face the music and admit what has become glaringly obvious since “the Donald” won the state of New York with 60 percent of the popular vote: the #NeverTrump movement has lost.
Daniel R. DePetris is an associate analyst at the Raddington Group. He has also written for CNN.com, Small Wars Journal and the Diplomat.
Image: Bill Kristol at CPAC Florida. Photo by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.