Commentary: To Stop Trump, A Rubio/Kasich Ticket, and Justice Cruz

Guy Benson
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Posted: Feb 26, 2016 12:01 PM
Commentary: To Stop Trump, A Rubio/Kasich Ticket, and Justice Cruz

It is with no small measure of trepidation and hesitation that I wade into these waters, but I feel as though I must. Much is at stake, and time is running perilously short to affect needed change -- so I ask you to hear me out, even if you're inclined to disagree. Over recent weeks and months, I haven't been shy about voicing my opposition to the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump.  I fully recognize that this stance instantly alienates a portion of my readership.  I'm comfortable with that; we will agree to disagree on this question, which I happen to consider critically important.  My intended audience for this piece, therefore, is not committed Trump backers, but rather anyone else who considers him or herself a conservative-leaning voter.  In my estimation, Mr. Trump has habitually fallen well short of demonstrating that he can be counted upon to govern as a conservative. His capriciousness, his impulsivity, his incoherence, his mean-spiritedness, his pettiness, his chronic dishonesty and his policy ignorance are unpresidential in the extreme. And based on empirical data, he appears particularly ill-equipped to defeat an otherwise highly-vulnerable Hillary Clinton in the fall.  Last night's flailing debate performance served as a reminder of how wholly unprepared he is, on both temperament and basic knowledge, to be president.  All told, a Trump nomination would represent a catastrophic, lasting blow to the principles of conservatism, and to the political party that most closely (if deeply imperfectly) represents them. When he launched his campaign with a rambling, winding, stream-of-consciousness tirade, I instinctively wrote Trump off as a sideshow. Over the many news cycles that followed, I was forcibly disabused of that notion. The realization that the Trump phenomenon was real began to sink in over the summer, as the billionaire celebrity seized and kept the lead in national Republican polling for weeks -- then months -- on end. In recent days, I've begun to sound the alarm on an urgent, distressing reality: Unless something dramatic happens to alter the trajectory of this nominating contest, and soon, Trump will prevail.  He will be the nominee.

So where does that inconvenient truth leave the majority of center-right voters, for whom nominee Trump is an undesirable-to-unacceptable scenario?  It leaves us at a discomfiting crossroads.  Burying our heads in the sand and hoping for the best is not an option.  There seems to be a misplaced sense among even some staunch Trump critics that everything will work out over time.  Wake up.  There is precious little time left to have any realistic shot at fending off an outcome that is creeping ever closer to becoming an inevitability.  And at the current rate, everything will not work out.  Therefore what must happen -- within the next few weeks, at the absolute latest -- is the formation of a strategic alliance among the remaining non-Trump contenders. And yes, I believe that means uniting behind a single alternative candidacy, sooner than later.  Recent polling indicates that either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would beat Trump among Republicans in one-on-one contests.  The time is very rapidly approaching for that two-man race to materialize.  If and when it does, the last man standing must be prepared to engage in all-out war against Trump.  Simply cutting the field down to two is still no guarantee of victory, but it's a vital first step.

This is where things get sticky for me because I've been privately torn over my personal preferences -- as a private citizen, not a political analyst -- throughout this process.  As someone who will vote in Virginia's primary on March 1, I've given serious consideration to pulling the lever for more than half-a-dozen different candidates: Gov. Scott Walker, Gov. Rick Perry, Carly Fiorina, Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul, and Sen. Marco Rubio.  I've also harbored immense respect for several others, whom I'd have gladly supported in a general election against the Democratic nominee.  Over the last few weeks, that roster has filtered down to two viable candidates: Cruz and Rubio.  I'm convinced that if the Republican nominee is going to be someone other than Donald Trump, it will be one of these two Cuban-American conservatives.  As for my thinking about this toss-up, I tipped my hand a bit a few weeks ago both here at Townhall and on Twitter: The two first-term Senators are remarkably similar in terms of ideology and voting record.  I have disagreements with both on certain policies and issues, but as Rush Limbaugh has noted, both easily fall under the umbrella of principled, full-spectrum conservatives.  On one hand, I find myself leaning slightly toward Cruz on ideology, especially as it pertains to foreign policy and civil liberties.  His worldview is less reflexively hawkish and interventionist than Rubio's, and he's shown a welcome willingness to support compromise measures on thorny issues like government domestic spying powers -- for which he's been unfairly demagogued by Rubio, in my opinion.  He was also instrumental in defeating the disastrous 'gang of eight' legislation championed by Rubio in 2013, even if he's engaged in some revisionist history on his own immigration position.

On the other hand, Rubio's disposition, message, and style are more attractive to me than Cruz's.  Rubio is an immense political talent whose personal story and brand of conservatism is capable of inspiring the faithful and potential converts alike.  When he argues that he is the best-situated candidate to unite and grow the conservative movement, that resonates with me.  Cruz is a valuable asset to the cause in many respects, but I fear he would be more easily twisted into a right-wing gargoyle by the Democratic attack machine than would Rubio. I'll also confess to experiencing occasional frustration over the Texan's "purist" posturing that too often casts tactical disagreements as fundamental betrayals.  So although I believe either Senator has a reasonable chance of defeating a gravely-flawed Hillary Clinton in November, a combination of polling data, anecdotal evidence (including several conversations with professional Democratic operatives), and the crucial, if lamentable, "personality contest" element of modern elections (which can only be denied via willful blindness) leads me to conclude that Rubio would present the more challenging general election match-up for Democrats -- especially Mrs. Clinton.

Neither one of these preferences -- Cruz (narrowly) on substance, Rubio on style -- has been decisive in my mind to this point.  In an alternate, happier universe, the Republican race would have boiled down to a no-holds-barred battle between these two talented conservatives, and I'd have been perfectly comfortable with whomever emerged as the victor.  But that's not the reality we face.  Rubio and Cruz are hammering each other on a daily basis, alright, spilling lots of political blood in a vicious competition for second place.  At this stage, that dynamic only serves to benefit the aforementioned boor who occupies first place.  This warring must stop, and last night was a maddeningly belated step in the right direction.  If I were an Iowa voter, I would have caucused for Cruz.  If I were a New Hampshire resident, I'd have voted for Rubio (after giving Christie one last hard look), despite his costly stumble there.  In South Carolina, I'd have been hopelessly indecisive and may have stood in the voting booth staring at two names for an unreasonable amount of time.  Now, the imperative is to stop Trump.  One way to do so, as Erick Erickson has suggested, is to set aside one's leanings and vote for either Rubio or Cruz, depending on which man is closest to Trump in the polls in one's home state on primary day.  This approach strikes me as reasonable; it may slow Trump, or perhaps even drag the nomination fight into the convention, at which point all bets are off.  But I fear it would not stop Trump the way a clear-cut two-man race might (note: not would. Might).  To that end, I reluctantly echo the proposal introduced by my Townhall Media colleague, Allahpundit.  Earlier this week, AP explicitly identified himself as a Cruz supporter who has been persuaded by the South Carolina results and the nominating calendar ahead that Marco Rubio is the best chance conservatives have to stop Trump.  He quoted Ross Douthat's well-reasoned case for a Rubio/Kasich ticket at length, swallowing hard and essentially endorsing the idea -- with an extra sweetener that I've been mulling over for weeks tossed in:

[Rubio offering Kasich the VP slot now to consolidate the field is the] sort of pie-in-the-sky skullduggery that lazy bloggers like me cook up when they can’t think of anything better to write about — and Douthat acknowledges that. It’s crazy, he admits, but this whole election is crazy and the terrible fact remains that time is so short that a Hail Mary pass like this really might be the only way to whittle the field down rapidly. A new poll out of Massachusetts today has Trump leading Rubio … 50/16. There’s not a moment to spare. While we’re at it, Rubio should probably go ahead and promise Cruz that he’ll be his first nominee for the Supreme Court if Cruz backs out now and endorses him. That’s asking a lot of Cruz’s pride after winning Iowa, but Cruz is nothing if not calculating. If he’s no longer beating Trump among evangelicals and he’s staring at a long race with relatively few evangelical votes to be had after March 1st, then his path is all but gone. If he fights on and loses, he’ll be stuck in the Senate as an unpopular junior member whose party is drifting in the opposite direction from him ideologically, making a successful 2020 or 2024 run — especially having lost the primary once before — unlikely. If he gets out and backs Rubio now, he could be the next Scalia.

This may feel like a Hail Mary...because it is one. I take this position not out of strong conviction, but out of transparent desperation. But it's well-founded desperation, borne of a gnawing fear about what is about to befall the conservative movement at such a consequential juncture in our history. I urge you to read Douthat's piece on the Kasich-for-VP gambit, which is characteristically compelling. Do I have serious issues with Kasich, especially on Medicaid expansion? You bet. Do they pale in comparison to my concerns about Trump's healthcare vision (if you can even call it that)? They do. Kasich would bring several things to the table that would complement Rubio nicely, including significant executive experience, seasoning, and rust belt appeal. I don't care who you are, or how weak your opponent was: Winning re-election in America's preeminent swing state with a whopping 64 percent of the statewide vote is nothing to sneeze at.  Plus, there are worse ideas than a ticket featuring a Floridian and an Ohioan.  Just look at Kasich's eye-popping favorability numbers in the crucial battleground state he leads. Of course there are risks associated with naming a running mate at this early stage in the process (Kasich can be a loose cannon and has shown little inclination to play ball -- and could rebuff a Rubio trial balloon, or even use it to embarrass Rubio), but these uniquely desperate times call for an uncomfortably accelerated and precarious timeline. Then again, might these bizarre comments signal that he's open to a running mate overture?  Is he angling for a spot on Trump's ticket?

Which brings us to the Cruz portion of this complicated equation.  Cruz's struggles in South Carolina and Nevada, especially among evangelicals, are blinking neon warning signs that his victory scenario isn't tracking towards success. Read this excellent and sobering piece by Dan McLaughlin spelling out in excruciating detail why, barring a miraculous, sweeping set of triumphs next Tuesday, the Cruz campaign will be over, for all intents and purposes.  That's particularly true if new polling and whispers about a virtual tie in the Lonestar State (whose Republican delegates are proportionally allocated) are confirmed. For the record, I believe Cruz will win his home state on Tuesday. Put bluntly, both Cruz and Rubio now have treacherously narrow paths to the nomination.  Rubio's is wider (but could also collapse on March 15), due almost entirely to the data breadcrumbs we've seen thus far, as well as the nature of the calendar ahead.  Indeed, several reports suggest that a number of Cruz loyalists are beginning to waver, and are at least encouraging the hard-charging Senator to lay off of Rubio.  Promisingly, this a serious rhetorical adjustment.  A thaw, perhaps?

Enter the "Justice Cruz" option. In the event that Rubio is nominated and wins the general election -- likely meaning that Republicans would have retained their Senate majority -- he would nominate his erstwhile rival to replace the great Antonin Scalia on the High Court. This is not pure fantasy; Cruz is eminently qualified for such a position. He's a brilliant constitutional scholar who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he served as primary editor of the extremely prestigious Harvard Law Review. He clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, served as Texas' Solicitor General, and has argued nine cases before SCOTUS. Given his youth, a Justice Cruz would shape American jurisprudence for decades, penning opinions and dissents that would reverberate for generations. But would the Senate confirm him? A few points: (1) Congress' upper chamber has a long bipartisan history of confirming its own to executive appointments.  Fifteen US Senators have served on the Supreme Court, six of whom were sitting members when they were nominated.  (2) Senate Democrats have already blown up the judicial filibuster for lower court appointments, and are discussing doing the same for Supreme Court nominees if they regain a majority in 2017. Republicans would be well within their rights to trigger this option to confirm Cruz. (3) As he'll eagerly tell you, Cruz is reviled in the Senate, including among many members of his own caucus. "Exiling" him from the political realm may be a dream come true for some of his Senate colleagues, with the added bonus of banishing him to a post where popularity doesn't matter at all, and where constitutional originalism is of the utmost importance. When I floated this idea on social media a few nights ago, some Cruz fans objected, arguing that Cruz is so hated by his colleagues that they'd reject him out of spite. I don't share that opinion, but let's grant it for the sake of argument. If that's the case, what does that say about his prospects to win the presidency, let alone govern?  In short, Court seems like the ideal spot for man of Cruz's background, intellect and passions. He would be far more valuable to the constitutionalist cause ensconced in the judicial branch.

So there you have it: A barely-plausible desperation heave toward the endzone with Team Trump playing prevent defense (which, for him, includes taking lots of potshots). President Rubio, Vice President Kasich, and Justice Cruz -- with a primetime convention speech from Dr. Ben Carson, detailing his remarkable life story and path to improbable achievement. That's not how many people would have drawn things up at the onset of this cycle, but here we are. Much is on the line for those of us who believe the country cannot afford a Hillary Clinton presidency -- which I truly believe a Trump nomination would usher in, despite occasional doubts and cross-currents. Sure, there are a thousand fair objections to the scenario I've laid out. I'm not entirely sold on it myself, to be candid. I'm not reflexively hostile to other theories and scenarios (such as the state-by-state strategic voting plan to try to force a contested convention, or a Rubio/Cruz or Cruz/Rubio unity ticket), but this is the one I've settled on.  And there's no time to wallow in endless debate. A moment of truth is upon us.  Right now.  Either Trump's opponents and their supporters will set egos and preferences to the side in pursuit of a common end, or the outcome they claim to abhor will come to fruition.  Which is precisely why I've chosen to speak out.  Based on the delegate math, the unforgiving calendar, and the exceedingly high stakes at play, my choice has been made for me: It will either be Trump or Rubio, and I choose Rubio. I urge you -- which sounds better than 'beg you' -- to consider joining me in this call.  There's no time to waste.