In early 2015 I scheduled our annual listener cruise for the first two weeks of May 2016. I assumed the GOP nomination process would be over by then.
When the pre-primary debate season seemed to point to an open convention, I told myself I would only be away for the Indiana and West Virginia contests. I’d be back for the weeks running up to the all important Golden State vote.
After going 11 for 12 in predictions through the first two months of voting (My misstep: I thought Sen. Marco Rubio would finish third in New Hampshire) I was confident of an open convention and devoted six weeks of this column to teasing out the possibilities through fictional scenarios.
Then Donald Trump put an end to the uncertainty. All while I was across the Atlantic.
Given the past 48 hours, it appears from far away and with only a tenth of my usual information inputs that the GOP in which I have been an active member since 1974 may be split for the remainder of the 2016 cycle. The sparring between the presumptive nominee and the leader of Reagan conservatism, House Speaker Paul Ryan, the decisions by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and both President Bush 41 and 43 as well as Gov. Jeb Bush to pass on supporting Trump, and the fiery reaction from the Trump base bears all the makings of an electoral disaster for the GOP.
The most important article on the position of #NeverTrump partisans is Elliott Abrams “When you hate your candidate,” from the current Weekly Standard. It is a guide to going over the political falls in a barrel, but I don’t think it is necessarily where the GOP has to go. The possibilities:
1. Donald Trump could take a series of public actions and make crucial commitments regarding the Supreme Court and the military rebuild that would effectively provide bridges to court originalists and hawks. Most important would be a clear declaration of his intended first nominee to the court. A second and third commitment regarding possible future vacancies would be extremely important as well. (His suggestion to the convention of a running mate will matter as well, but don’t count on reflexive acceptance of that name given what is underway right now.)
Crucial as well is a display by Trump of a command of the chain of command and a statement of whom he intends to make his secretary of defense and national security advisor (former Sen. Jon Kyl, for example, as defense secretary). With the key national security appointments named, the hawkish wing of the GOP would have little reason to pass on supporting Trump regardless of other policy and style differences.
2. But if Donald Trump continues either personally or via unrebuked and credentialed surrogates — not Twitter nutters — to focus his rhetorical fire and tweets on past opponents or conservatives not in his camp, Trump will force the party split that will assure his massive defeat in the fall. The upside of this course would be clarity for the down ticket candidates that distanced themselves from Trump, though not necessarily loudly. The downside, of course, is loss of the Supreme Court for a generation, not four years.
3. An independent conservative ticket could emerge, though it is unlikely. The right combination of candidates could qualify on enough state ballots to seize some states in the mountain west and perhaps a few others which, combined with the wins Team Trump has guaranteed in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, would put the election in the House. It is the longest of long shots, but if the presumptive nominee insists on spitting the party, Trump can make it so. It would only take one deep pocket to gather the signatures to put an independent conservative in play.
There is also the possibility of a simple revolt on the floor of the Cleveland convention. Convention delegates are “bound” only if they chose to be. They can refuse electoral suicide if resolve sweeps them and the state laws purporting to command them otherwise are not only of dubious constitutional foundation but also unenforceable in practice.
Recall that Donald Trump’s attachment to “the pledge,” which I very publicly applauded on a debate stage, was then subsequently made contingent by Trump on “fair treatment” of him by the party (effectively unbinding all the GOP candidates even as it did Trump). The party can itself make its commitment to him contingent on his conduct in the next two months, conduct that is “fair” in the eyes of those who, in thousands of cases, have spent a life’s work in party building. Trump can chose to do this. Or he can conduct himself as the unifier he proclaims himself to be.
But he can indeed chose to try and wreck the party. Not the “GOPdc” but the “GOPcentralcommittee” of a thousand counties across the U.S. Those local party loyalists will not go quietly into exile. If Donald Trump and his loudest supporters treat them and their work with contempt, they could rebel. At a minimum, they can take a four month vacation from GOP get-out-the-vote. Deadly to Trump’s chances, that.
It is Trump’s choice. I’ve never been #NeverTrump and am not now. I am committed to support the party’s nominee. But just like Donald Trump’s “pledge,” that commitment was premised on mutual commitments, the most basic of which is that the nominee would try to win and bring GOP majorities along with him in order to govern. If in fact he does not intend to win, but to wreck, all bets all over the country will be off.
This column was originally posted on WashingtonExaminer.com.