Almost all observers, including me, dismissed Donald Trump’s announcement of his presidential candidacy last summer as a stunt that would go nowhere. “Performance art,” I told friends. Then he started talking — he called Mexican immigrants rapists, disparaged John McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war, mocked a disabled reporter, called for a ban on Muslim immigration. With each new utterance, we assumed his campaign would tank.
We were wrong. Late in the game, Republicans took aim at him. National Review magazine gathered 22 writers for an “Against Trump” cover story. Sen. Marco Rubio called Trump a “con artist” and sold #NeverTrump T-shirts on his campaign website. Gov. Rick Perry declared him “a cancer on conservatism." Gov.Bobby Jindal called him “substance-free,” a “power-hungry shark” and an “egomaniacal madman” in a 10-minute philippic.
Faced with Trump’s apparent triumph, many have come around. Rubio, Perry, and Jindal have all endorsed him. But a few conservatives and Republicans refuse to rally around a man they consider un-conservative, dangerous to the American republic and unfit to be president.
Most notably, former presidential nominee Mitt Romney and outspoken Sen. Ben Sasse joined The Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and activist Erick Erickson in searching for a serious conservative to run a third-party campaign. They didn’t expect to win, but they believed such a candidate could keep conservative ideas alive and give #NeverTrump voters a reason to come to the polls and vote for Republican candidates for Senate and House of Representatives.
But three months after the third-party talk began, no serious independent candidate has stepped forward. Kristol, Erickson and others variously appealed to Romney, to Sasse, to former Sen. Tom Coburn, to former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and to retired generals. No one was willing to take on the thankless task.
Still, over Memorial Day weekend, Kristol tweeted “There will be an independent candidate — an impressive one, with a strong team and a real chance.” The world waited with bated breath. And then the name leaked: David French, a lawyer and writer for National Review. An intelligent conservative, to be sure, and quite possibly a better potential president than either Trump or Hillary Clinton. But he’s no Romney or Sasse, and he would have little prospect for raising big money or even getting on many state ballots, deadlines for which are rapidly approaching.
But something else also happened over Memorial Day weekend: The Libertarian Party gathered in Orlando and nominated two former governors: Gary Johnson of New Mexico for president and William Weld of Massachusetts for vice president. It’s an impressive ticket: two of the most libertarian governors in memory, with more public sector executive experience than either Trump or Clinton, the first ticket with two governors since the Republican campaign of 1948, perhaps the most politically experienced third-party ticket ever.
You’d think the #NeverTrump Republicans would shout “Hallelujah!” Yet they’ve been strangely quiet. Here are two former Republican governors, both re-elected in a Democratic state and a swing state, both with a record of accomplishment. And most specifically for the #NeverTrump crowd, both men of good character who are fit for public office and have thought seriously about public policy.
True, they’re not conservatives. They’re libertarians. Or at least libertarian-ish, as some more radical members of the Libertarian party grumbled. They both supported gay marriage even before many Democrats. Johnson wants to legalize marijuana — Weld supports legalization for medical use — both want to rethink the failed drug war. They’re pro-choice. And perhaps most galling to some conservatives and neoconservatives, Johnson wants a new foreign policy that rejects endless war and futile attempts at “nation-building.”
Still, compared with the erratic and dangerous Trump and the self-proclaimed “government junkie” Clinton, the Johnson-Weld ticket seems like a no-brainer for principled conservatives and Republicans. They believe in limited constitutional government. They want to cut taxes, spending and regulation and eliminate unnecessary agencies. They support free trade and liberal immigration policies. They would be less likely to expand and abuse executive power than either Clinton or Trump. And if they can raise money, get serious media attention and make an impact in the polls, they can ensure that there’s still a political space for Americans who believe in less government and more freedom.
Time’s up for the NeverTrumpers. There’s not going to be a serious conservative third party. On November 8, they’re likely to find three names on the ballot: Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Gary Johnson. They’ll have to choose.