Should NeverTrumpers Become Democrats?
A considerable number of Republican have effectively left our party over Donald Trump. Should we go all the way?
Liberal pundit Bill Scher thinks those of us who can’t stand Donald Trump should face reality and join the opposition party.
There’s a new debate inside the #NeverTrump movement about how to respond to a president they loathe and the Republican Party that loves him. Some #NeverTrump conservatives, like New York Times columnist David Brooks and former Bush White House aide Reed Galen, are talking about creating a new third party. Others, like George Will and Max Boot, have become registered independents and are urging voters to put Democrats in charge of Congress this November, as a kind of temporary stopgap measure until the Republicans return to their senses. But according to speculation reported by POLITICO, former McCain 2008 chief strategist Steve Schmidt may go one step further: He’s reportedly thinking about signing up with a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, possibly former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.–POLITICO Magazine, “Why the Smart Move for Never-Trumpers Is to Become Democrats“
No doubt Schmidt would get attacked for being an opportunist. But if you are a conservative, #NeverTrump, pro-immigrant, free-trading, anti-Putin defender of the post-World War II international order, the only principled and practical move left is to join the Democratic Party.
Effectively, I’ve been on the side of Will and Boot in this argument. For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been able to bring myself to become a Democrat. But I recognize that there’s no practical way to create a third party under our system and that a vote for a party that has no chance of winning is effectively half a vote for Trump.
Scher argues this is misguided:
The moment for temporarily endorsing the Democrats to block President Donald Trump was the presidential election of 2016, not the midterms of 2018. Had more Republicans endorsed Hillary Clinton two years ago, movement conservatives would likely be giddily anticipating the return of one of their own to the Oval Office in two years, as an obstructionist GOP Congress blocked the Democratic president’s every move. Instead, they’re facing a potential 2020 campaign that will be even more unpalatable to them than the choice they were presented with in 2016. Instead of Trump vs. Clinton, they could get Trump vs. Elizabeth Warren, or even Bernie Sanders.
While many of us endorsed voting for Clinton in 2016, I agree that not enough did. Still, “You missed your chance, now the Democrats are going to go much further left!” is hardly an argument likely to persuade estranged Republicans to hop on the bandwagon.
Backing a no-chance candidate like Bill Kristol against Trump in the 2020 Republican primaries just to make a point is a fool’s errand. And even a serious candidate like John Kasich, Jeff Flake or Ben Sasse doesn’t stand a chance, given Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans.
Again, we agree.
Once #NeverTrump conservatives accept that they have completely lost the core debates about the direction and purpose of the Republican Party, they can open their eyes to the possibility of winning some debates inside the Democratic Party. By playing a direct role in electing delegates to the 2020 Democratic National Convention, #NeverTrump conservatives might even prevent what horrifies them most: a democratic socialist president.
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. This is the strategy that Republicans, including myself, pursued in the Deep South decades ago when it was a one-party, Democratic region.
While I don’t know whether there are enough of us to stem the Progressive tide among the Democratic nominating electorate, we may indeed be able to get someone like Joe Biden nominated over a Sanders or Warren. There certainly aren’t enough of us to propel Schultz from essentially zero to the forefront (not that I’m sure we’d want to).
But that’s an argument for strategic voting in the other party’s primary. There would be a case for that this cycle, anyway, since Trump is all-but-assured the Republican nomination. That’s an altogether different thing than permanently joining the opposition party.
Scher presses the case:
Join the Democratic Party? That’s the “slightly less bad” option, wrote Galen, where conservatives would be “disliked and distrusted, pushed to the margins.” But wait, how is that different from the space #NeverTrump conservatives occupy in today’s Republican Party?
That’s a fair point! But, arguably at least, conservatives were the main face of that party until quite recently. Even when we started losing control of the local and Congressional party to the populists, we continued to dominate the Presidential nominating process until the last cycle. Meanwhile, the liberal-progressive wing* has dominated the Democratic Party since at least FDR’s day. While it may not be true, it’s simply easier to conceive of taking back the GOP than taking over the opposition party.
The hesitation to switch parties is understandable, because the Democratic Party is not a conservative party. But for some anti-Trump conservatives, their reluctance is rooted in a distorted caricature of their rivals. They wrongly view the Democratic Party as a rotten cauldron of crass identity politics, recreational abortion and government run amok.
I agree that the caricature of the party painted by Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the rest has made it harder for erstwhile Republicans to join the other team. But Scher cherry picks to demonstrate the opposite:
Most conservative reaction to the notion of party-switching has been harshly negative, even as much of it is premised on a Democratic Party that doesn’t exist.
For example, in an April article explaining why conservatives won’t embrace Democrats, the conservative Trump critic Ben Shapiro wrote, “the Democratic Party has cleansed itself of all pro-life voices.” Now while it is certainly true that support for abortion rights is a pillar of the Democratic Party, it is also true that Shapiro wrote that sentence one month after a pro-life Democrat, Rep. Dan Lipinski, won his primary against a pro-choice challenger, and three months after three Senate Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in supporting an abortion ban at 20 weeks of pregnancy. One month after Shapiro’s assertion, the Democratic governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, signed into a law a 15-week abortion ban.
Or take this critique of Boot from National Review’s Jonathan Tobin: “Does he really think the Democrats are less corrupt than Trump and his Cabinet? Would America be better off run by a party that is ruled by identity politics and intent on promoting racial division and class warfare? Does he think, for all of Trump’s faults, that civil political discourse is the specialty of the party of Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, Keith Ellison and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?”
Leaving aside whether the names Tobin cites deserve to be tagged as uncivil, why doesn’t Tobin describe the Democrats as the party of Dick Durbin, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bob Casey, John Lewis, Seth Moulton and Heidi Heitkamp—not to mention Barack Obama and Joe Biden? If the Democratic Party is “intent on promoting racial division,” why is the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsing the white Rep. Mike Capuano over his African-American primary challenger Ayanna Pressley? How is it that Doug Jones won a Senate seat in deep red Alabama on the strength of a black-white coalition?
The answer to those questions is that anything that complicates the conservative caricature of Democrats is expunged from the narrative. That’s par for the course for both sides in political commentary. Conservative platforms are hardly the only places where such oversimplification happens. But the warped story that conservatives tell themselves about the left is blinding them from objectively weighing where they can wield the most influence.
Most of this is just silly.
I’m not religious, so the social issues, including abortion, were never a major factor in my attraction to the GOP. But the fact that a liberal Roman Catholic in Louisiana signed an anti-abortion bill is hardly the best indicator of where the party is nationally.
Yes, Booker, Harris, Lewis—not to mention Obama and Biden—are moderate compared to Sanders, Waters, and AOC. But they’re hardly moderates from the point of view of conservative erstwhile Republicans. And, again, the evidence seems to be of a Democratic Party rejecting moderates like Biden. (Yes, he’s the frontrunner in the early polling. But the opposition to him is visceral and likely to be decisive once the field thins.)
Nor are two idiosyncratic examples sufficient to undermine the notion of identity politics. Lewis’ backing of Capuano is strategic; he understands that defeating Trump is the chief goal. And, have mercy, a black-white coalition banding together to narrowly elect a moderate Democrat against a creepy old man who dates teenagers is evidence only that decency isn’t completely absent from Alabama politics.
Granted, where #NeverTrump conservatives can be most effective is in large part determined by what issues they most care about. If you are a Republican because you oppose abortion in all circumstances and love conservative judges and tax cuts, then becoming a Democrat doesn’t make any sense. But if you are primarily horrified at how Trump is undermining the existing international political and economic order—hugging Russia, lauding strongmen, sparking protectionist trade wars—then becoming a Democrat is your best option.
So . . . this describes few Americans, indeed. Foreign policy is the main determinant of voting behavior for practically nobody. And, frankly, I’m not sure Sanders or several other Democratic contenders are all that much better than Trump on protectionism and the international order.
Indeed, one of the primary reasons so many Republicans who find Trump loathsome nonetheless held their noses and voted for him was their faith that he would reward them by nominating conservatives to the bench. In that way—in perhaps only in that way—he has been a normal Republican President. One could see just about any of the 2016 contenders picking Neil Gorsuch. And, while I like to think a John Kasich or Jeb Bush would have pushed Brett Kavanaugh aside once the serial allegations of sexual misconduct arose, he would otherwise have fit the profile of a Republican Supreme Court nominee nicely.
Conservatives tend to look at the 2016 Democratic presidential primary and its aftermath as proof that the party is an incubator of socialism and radicalism. The pro-Trump conservative Hugh Hewitt, in trying to ward off an exodus of #NeverTrumpers, raised the specter of a “radicalized Democratic Party” experiencing a “lurch left” which, if in control of Congress, would immediately push impeachment and the abolition of ICE. Hewitt overlooks that House legislation to abolish ICE has only eight co-sponsors, that the Democratic congressional leadership has shunned impeachment talk and that several red state Senate Democrats are running on how well they work with Trump.
Besides, the best way to pull the Democratic Party back from the far-left fringe would be for more conservatives to join it. It’s true that socialist-friendly Berniecrats are increasingly vocal in the Democratic Party, but conservatives should also recognize the ideological breadth of what is the nation’s only remaining big-tent party. Democrats of all stripes are held together by a belief in active government to solve problems and a commitment to equal rights and opportunities for women and minorities. But questions over foreign policy and trade have long been points of internal debate, and that makes them policy areas where new party members can play a significant role.
So, again, I’m in agreement with Scher that Republicans—and the media, always looking for an interesting narrative—have overplayed the AOCification of the Democratic Party. And I’m amenable to the argument that a tide of fed-up Republicans voting in Democratic primaries could nudge the party further to the center.
For national security conservatives such as myself, that’s an easier sell than it is for social conservatives. I’d much rather have a Joe Biden calling the shots than a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
But Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are octogenarians. They’re almost certainly going to retire during the next administration if we have a Democratic President. Another Elena Kagan or Sonya Sotomayor is likely the best-case scenario moderate Republicans could hope for. That’s a hard pill to swallow.
The corollary argument is a bit more persuasive:
So once conservatives free themselves from the Fox News echo chamber, it would be easier to conduct good faith, fact-based negotiations over policy specifics, such as how to tackle climate change through a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which some conservatives already support. Instead of barreling toward single-payer health insurance, conservatives could work with their new Democratic friends on tidying up what was once known as RomneyCare. Pro-life and pro-choice forces could finally team up on sex education and contraception access to reduce unwanted pregnancies.
Partly, though, this is the pundit’s fallacy. For conservative intellectuals, it’s easy to imagine that there are a huge number of anti-Trump Republicans who essentially share the elite consensus on climate change and simply prefer a conservative policy approach. I’m not sure that’s true. Ditto healthcare reform.
I remain skeptical of this:
To the average conservative Trump-skeptic, the Democratic Party will not feel terribly cozy. You would often be fighting uphill, and you would lose more than you would win. But so long as conservatives fight honorably, stick to the facts and genuinely seek common ground, they will be more comfortable among Democrats than they might now assume—certainly more comfortable than they are in a Republican Party that has rejected them already.
But this may nonetheless be right:
There is no perfect political home for the #NeverTrumpers. So it’s time for them to choose the place where they can do the most good, for themselves and for the country. Of the many reasons “why Trump won,” anti-Trump conservatives refusing to look beyond a caricature of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party is one of the most crucial. It’s a mistake they shouldn’t make again.
I’m considerably less conservative policywise than I was a decade ago but I remain temperamentally conservative. I’m unlikely to “join” the Democratic Party anytime soon, either psychologically or officially.** It’s quite likely, though, that I’ll vote in the Virginia Democratic primary on March 3, 2020—the first time I’ve done that since the 1986 Alabama gubernatorial race.***
*Let’s stipulate that “left-right” and “liberal-conservative” are relative, shifting terms. Once upon a time, the Republicans were the liberal party and the Democrats the conservative party. But that flipped generations ago.
**I’ve never lived in a state with party registration, so I’m not even sure there’s a way for me to do so.
***As alluded to earlier, the Democratic Primary was effectively the general election in Alabama in those days. As fate would have it, the 1986 race wound up changing that as my preferred candidate in that race, Charlie Graddick, won but was later disqualified by Democratic officials on the grounds that many who had voted in the Republican primary illegally crossed over and voted in the Democratic run-off. This angered enough people that Republican Guy Hunt was elected governor.