Last summer, “Donald Trump can’t get the nomination” was a straightforward prediction, but after three straight primary victories, it now often sounds like more of an incantation—something that desperate conservatives say to ward off panic. At other times it signals disbelief, the way you’d say “this can’t be happening” about some disaster unfolding right before your eyes. There’s only one group of people for whom “Trump can’t” actually conveys authority over the selection of the nominee. They are the same “party elites” who couldn’t rescue Jeb Bush, but who are now expected to rescue the party from its voters. An NPR report on Wednesday captured the mood well: “The Republican establishment is desperate to find a way to stop [Trump],” and just this week, they “began to coalesce in earnest around Marco Rubio. He received a slew of new endorsements and big donor support.” This is candidate selection via process of elimination: The nominee can’t be Trump, and it can’t be Cruz—which leaves Rubio, whose loyalty to the GOP donor class seems to compensate for the fact that he hasn’t won a single primary contest.
But as long as desperation is causing us to look at nominees who have yet to win a single contest, why not John Kasich? That’s the question lurking behind a new dispatch from Scott McConnell in The American Conservative. McConnell asks the questions I’d be asking if I were a GOP voter: why, if the party is supposed to unite around a moderate, is there so much pressure to go with Rubio and not Kasich? And why is the Rubio-as-our-moderate-guy camp paying so little attention to his absurdly hawkish foreign policy?
I have yet to hear a pure foreign-policy question come up in any [Kasich] town hall, but this is where the next president has the most autonomy, and where the differences between the remaining Republicans are most pronounced. It seem truly bizarre that there should be pressure to winnow the field without more serious attention to these issues. There is now considerable pressure being exacted on Kasich to give way so the party can coalesce around Marco Rubio. Rubio is clearly the hawk in the race: he seeks to roll back the normalization towards Cuba, cancel the nuclear deal with Iran on Day One (a position he shares with Cruz), deploy more troops to Syria and Iraq, monitor and perhaps attack ships and aircraft bound for North Korea, toughen measures against China to encourage human rights, send more weapons to Ukraine, increase sanctions on Russia, and ensure the departure of Bashar al-Assad.
To be clear, to the extent that Kasich has addressed foreign policy, he’s signaled that he shares at least some of these positions. He’s called for a no-fly zone in Syria and for an international ground force to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But on the other hand, he’s distanced himself from party members who promise to “tear up” the Iran Deal on Day One, is less inclined to discuss North Korea in such belligerent terms, and has insisted that “we don’t seek confrontation with China.”
These differences might make for precisely the kind of revealing intra-party foreign policy argument that the Rubio movement, McConnell notes, seems intended to avoid. “But doesn’t it seem peculiar,” he asks, “that Conservatism Inc. is pushing these policies without the pretense of national debate? That would seem to be the major motivation behind the efforts to shove Kasich and Cruz out of the race and anoint Marco Rubio as the party-insider choice.”
McConnell is right to suggest that the case for Rubio has a predominantly negative thrust: Since the argument boils down to “not-Trump” and “not-Cruz,” it can proceed apace with only minimal attention to the senator’s positions. And it’s helped along by weirdly credulous media coverage that conflates “party elite” with “mainstream”—which explains how, just Wednesday, Rubio could be described in two different New York Times articles as a “mainstream candidate” and “the candidate of the party’s pragmatic mainstream.” As McConnell writes, Rubio is an unreconstructed neocon on foreign policy. On domestic policy, he isn’t remotely mainstream or pragmatic—on abortion, gay rights, taxes, the environment, or most other key issues. In fact, he almost always ends up to Kasich’s right. If Rubio were consistently taking a solid second place in primary contests, this nervous push to elevate him (and not Kasich) over Trump would be easier to understand. If he were the (relative) moderate amidst a sea of wild-eyed opponents, the “mainstream pragmatist” rationale would be a selling point. But he’s neither a winner nor a moderate, and the concerted effort to portray him as such—and to coalesce quickly, before it’s too late!—does seem intended to sidestep the party’s voters in favor of the insiders’ candidate. The rank elitism of this effort bothers conservatives like McConnell. How many others will feel the same?