“You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
That was Donald Rumsfeld talking about the Iraq war, but he might as well have been talking about the Republicans who are (so far) willing to primary Donald Trump.
Sane Republicans (who think they might yet have a future in politics) are too afraid to take such a risk. Ben Sasse isn’t going to do this. Nikki Haley isn’t going to do this. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan isn’t going to do this. Every Never Trumper is, by now, presumed to understand this.
When having something to lose is a disqualifier, that leaves only the quixotic and the has-beens.
Former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld has, until Sunday, been the sole Republican willing to put his name on the line. So far, this mild-mannered moderate has failed to make much of a splash.
Enter former congressman Joe Walsh, a conservative talk radio host, with a trail of tweets almost as disturbing as Donald Trump’s. And the very first question out of everyone’s mouth is whether he is morally fit enough to challenge a man who pays off porn stars, tells congresswomen to go back to where they came from, and calls the press enemies of the people.
Consider what Erick Erickson (an erstwhile Never Trumper who is now supporting Trump) had to say about Walsh: “He is being pushed by a bunch of people who claim character really does matter. So they’ve settled for an opportunistic grifter and birther conspiracist… What a spectacular admission of failure that Walsh is the best they could come up with. And that they would settle for him suggests they really aren’t that concerned with character.”
Putting aside the understandable sour grapes, Erickson does have a point. Walsh’s unsavory history raises legitimate questions about critiques of Trump’s character. But Walsh is at least apologizing for some of his past indiscretions. This may or may not be sincere—may or may not be calculated—but it is at least something
One of the many problems with Trump is that he presents a sort of Catch-22: An adversary can be a responsible adult (and let Trump roll over you), or can try to emulate Trump’s worst qualities (and then, Trumpism wins).
Of course, few people—even if they try—have the ability to effectively wrestle with Trump in the muck. Whereas Trump is an amoral “killer,” this type of combat requires battling one’s own conscience, as well as battling Trump. Marco Rubio briefly tried the low road, but couldn’t sustain it. It felt too inauthentic—too yucky.
Whether it involves tangling in a debate, or (more likely) trolling on Twitter, Joe Walsh, for all his baggage (maybe because of his baggage?), might be temperamentally better suited to this type of battle.
So, yes, there is a certain irony involved in having someone with a sketchy reputation emerge as our would-be savior—but that’s because only a certain type of personality is crazy enough to volunteer for a suicide mission.
So, why aren’t better-caliber Republicans taking on Trump? For one thing, this generation’s crop of “decent,” “honorable,” Republicans tend to be wimps. This critique of America’s political “elites”—by Trump and his minions—turned out to be demonstrably true.
It’s also true that these politicians tend to play it safe when it comes to their own personal career ambitions. Simply put, they have something to lose.
Sasse, who talks a lot about conservative principles, would prefer to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate than to take this principled stand. Maybe he has even convinced himself this is the best thing for the cause? The last time I heard anything out of Sasse, he was defending Trump’s bogus “emergency” order on the border wall.
But he’s not alone. Since working for Trump at the United Nations, Haley has gushed about Turning Point USA's Charlie Kirk, said she is "proud" of Diamond & Silk, and called Jared Kushner a "hidden genius." She's trying to walk the line between pleasing Trumpians and Never Trumpers, which is a strategy that might result in her pleasing nobody. But it is a strategy. Haley clearly has her sights set on a post-Trump presidential run—a move that would not be helped by any anti-Trump heroics.
My personal favorite is Justin Amash, whom I would like to see launch a third-party bid. Unlike Sasse, Amash was one of a handful of Republicans who stood against the president’s usurpation of power from Congress. And unlike Walsh, Amash has been consistently principled. It is unclear whether Amash will rise to the occasion, but (as I’ve noted before) having read Amash’s rationale for leaving the GOP, it reads to me like he now has an obligation to seek the presidency.
Personally, I wish we had better options. Perhaps there is a chance that Walsh’s courage will inspire others to take the plunge? This feels like wishful thinking.
For now, Walsh might not be my preferred choice—he might have tons of flaws—but he is, at least, in the arena. Others are not willing to rise to the occasion, and this may be its own sort of character issue. Perhaps there’s a reason Walsh’s campaign slogan isn’t “Be Better,” but rather, “Be Brave”?
Of course, before we accuse Never Trumpers of cowardice, it might be worth waiting to see whether anyone else emerges, and whether Walsh can actually get Never Trumpers to coalesce behind him..
By definition, this is a very small group of contrarians who are united by virtue of whom they oppose, not whom (or what) they support. Further, it would be understandable if Never Trump conservatives who have already sacrificed a lot might not be willing to abandon what is perhaps the only thing of value they have left: The moral high ground. When virtue signaling is the only type of signaling you’ve got, why throw that away just to make Joe Walsh a celebrity?
To counter this instinct, Walsh (and his boosters) must now make this ironically Trumpian argument: When you’re looking for someone to storm the cockpit, you don’t check first to make sure someone has made all his child support payments on time—you don’t even check to see if he has tweeted something stupid. We’re not hiring a future president; we’re casting a pugilist. And when that's the case, courage covers a multitude of sins.
The irony, of course, is that so many of the lame excuses Trump supporters have used to rationalize their support of Trump are now being marshalled in the name of Joe Walsh. He is the lesser of two evils.
This is not a call for us to settle for Walsh, but rather, for more Republicans to join him in the arena.