Elephant Graveyard

by Charles J. Reid, Jr. Professor of Law, University of St. Thomas 07.05.2016

The story is circulating this weekend that high-level operatives in the Republican Party are preparing a third-party candidacy to challenge Donald Trump and the winner of the Democratic nomination in the general elections this fall. Such a candidacy would be a mistake for two major reasons: First, the political figures leading this effort are simply wrong for America. And, second, given the Republican Party’s evident fragility, a third-party candidacy at this particular moment will quite possibly leave it irretrievably broken.

Before I go further, however, I want to stipulate to certain facts: Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to serve as President of the United States. His racist pandering, his xenophobic calls for the deportation of undocumented aliens, and his proposals to exclude all members of a great world religion from entry into the United States are among the worst positions taken by a major presidential contender, ever.

The two men most often mentioned in connection with a nascent third-party candidacy are Mitt Romney and Bill Kristol. They are not the answers the United States is looking for. Their public careers suggest that they should not be elevated to positions of authority and influence.

Let’s take Mitt Romney first. Read the following words and dwell on them. This is Mitt Romney’s denunciation of the “47 percent” of vulnerable Americans who require some form of federal assistance to lead a decent life: “There are 47 percent . . . who are dependent on the government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

Who are the “47 percent” Mitt Romney so callously dismissed? They are Social Security recipients who worked hard all their lives and now subsist on a fixed income and depend on Medicare for their health care. They are the working poor who labor and sweat long hours and require government subsidized health insurance. They are the parents of special-needs children. They are the disabled, many of them veterans, who cannot work.

Do you detect a sneer in Romney’s voice? Contempt perhaps? I certainly do. In November, 2015, Donald Trump horrifically mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski for his disability. Trump has rightfully been taken to task for his inappropriate conduct.

But how is Romney’s condescension to the less fortunate any different from Trump’s cruel pantomime? It is cooler perhaps, more abstract and cerebral. The targets of the attack go unnamed. Romney doesn’t seem to know anyone in the 47 percent, but he stereotypes them as, what exactly? Lazy? Indifferent? Tell me again, who is worse? There is no one who better bears the title “Mr. One Percent” more fittingly than Mitt Romney.

We live in an America that, since the New Deal, has made a commitment to provide for the vulnerable. The New Deal was a promise binding government and citizens that the State would serve as final guarantor of the common good. It is about time that men like Mitt Romney make peace with that social contract.

Nor is this all. Mitt Romney introduced a term into the American political lexicon that should rightly haunt him for the rest of his public life — “self-deportation.” In January, 2012, he explained that this was his solution to undocumented immigrants in the United States. He promised that he would introduce a tracking system that would prevent the undocumented from working in the United States and so force them “to self-deport to a place where they can get work.”

Mitt Romney will always be remembered for two things: his condescending attack on the 47 percent and his popularization of the term “self-deportation.”

What about Bill Kristol? In 2002 and 2003, there was probably no more enthusiastic cheerleader for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq than Kristol. On September 18, 2002, he predicted that Bush’s impending invasion “could have terrifically good effects throughout the Middle East.” On November 21, 2002, he wrote that the prospective invasion “would start a chain reaction in the Arab world that would be very healthy.”

Kristol, as events proved, was horrifically, tragically wrong in his predictions. Over 4,000 Americans died in the invasion and occupation, and many thousands more were wounded. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died. Has Kristol ever apologized? Does he feel any remorse? I can find no record of it.

And while it is not on the same level as the Iraq fiasco, we must also remember Bill Kristol as the individual responsible for introducing Sarah Palin to the American public. She was an obscure Alaska governor, not quite half-way through her first term when Kristol recommended to John McCain that he select her as his running mate. The rest, as they say, is history.

These are the two men who are said to be most deeply involved in planning for a possible third-party candidacy. They should not do it. Romney is an unsuitable candidate radically out of step with America, and Bill Kristol is a deeply flawed strategist. Just as importantly, however, a third-party candidacy at this moment in time might deal an irreparable blow to the Republican Party.

One would have to look to nineteenth-century examples to find a political party as fragile as today’s Republican Party. One can identify three or four distinct sub-groupings within the Party that really have little in common with each other. There is the business roundtable wing, which was most closely associated with Jeb Bush in the just-concluded GOP primary. Mitt Romney is closely associated with this wing of the Party. They have money, they occupy positions of power and prestige, but they command little in the way of voter affection or allegiance.

Then there are the ethno-nationalists, who are most closely associated with Donald Trump. They are hostile to immigration and suspicious of foreign interventions. They are, many of them, the heirs and descendants of the Reagan Democrats of the 1980’s, men and women who transitioned from the Democratic to the Republican Parties for cultural and racial reasons. In this election cycle, at least, they have the most energy, even if that energy is funneled into support for the odious Donald Trump.

Third, there are the true-believing religious conservatives. These are men and women who entered politics as an outgrowth of their high religious principles. These were the voters who remained with Ted Cruz to the bitter end and see compromise on moral issues as something akin to surrender or betrayal.

Finally, one might (or might not) see as a separate group the military interventionists. This grouping consists of Senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and the many defense contractors who depend on an active military. If the primary vote for Lindsey Graham means anything, it suggests that this group has little support outside the Beltway.

A third-party candidacy at this point could explode this brittle amalgamation into its various component parts. It is anyone’s guess whether it can ever be put back together.

The better course to follow is that taken by Nelson Rockefeller in 1964. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee that year, had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and openly courted southern segregationists like Strom Thurmond. Like Donald Trump today, Goldwater made himself unacceptable to large segments of the voting public. Rockefeller refused to endorse Goldwater and abstained.

That is the course of action I would recommend today. Do nothing to show your support. Repeatedly and publicly explain why Donald Trump is unacceptable. Quietly vote for the Democratic nominee or just abstain from voting. And stand ready to pick up the pieces after November.


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