The prospect that Donald Trump will fall short of the delegate totals needed to wrap up the Republican presidential nomination without a convention floor fight has led many to conclude that the contest has been narrowed to a decision about which of the two leading finalists — Trump or Ted Cruz — is the lesser of two evils, with one of them destined to emerge as the party’s choice to become the president of the United States.
It is those last five words that matter — president of the United States. Presidents have access to nuclear launch codes, negotiate treaties, nominate Supreme Court justices, and can block legislation with which they disagree. This is not about teaching ‘‘the establishment’’ a lesson or looking for somebody to ‘‘shake things up.’’ Nor is it about cutting off essential government services when you don’t get your way. The question facing Republican delegates is not “either/or” but who provides the best alternative to either of these two bad choices? That’s the reason John Kasich, who polls show has the best chance of winning the presidency, remains in the race. There are other possibilities as well — Republicans like Colin Powell, Robert Gates, and, despite his Sherman-esque refusals to consider it, Paul Ryan.
When voters in the remaining primary states go to the polls, they will be deciding whether to vent their frustration or to weigh seriously the capacities required of the person who occupies the Oval Office.
That is why the agreement by Cruz and Kasich to strategically deploy their resources to prevent further Trump victories is the right thing to do. It’s not a game, and the stakes are high. Trump’s success to this point is due in part to an unusually large field that allowed him to look like a winner even though the majority of voters were voting for somebody else. Narrowing the field was always the way to block Trump and, even though it’s late, what Cruz and Kasich have done is a viable approximation of that strategy. For those who dislike both Trump and Cruz (a sizable number) the Kasich-Cruz alliance puts first things first: Stop Trump (the only candidate who could win a majority of delegates before the convention), then stop Cruz at the convention.
If the Republican Party wishes to seriously compete for the presidency, and if it cares to ensure that the nominee is someone who is fit for the job, it is going to have to get real about what it must now do. The way to stop the whining (and clueless) blowhard from New York is not to embrace the knee-jerk absolutist from Texas, but to ensure that neither accumulates enough delegates to win the nomination. The goal is not the lesser of two evils but a truly open convention at which the delegates, most of whom are serious long-time party participants, will select a nominee who best reflects the real values of the party and is qualified to be president.
The primaries are tools used by political parties (private organizations) to allow people to compete for the support of attendees at a convention. After casting an obligatory first-ballot vote, most of those delegates will be free — and many will be eager — to vote for a more responsible Republican ticket. That is how both parties have operated for all of living memory: Both set barriers to ensure that candidates can demonstrate the ability to be elected and that neither gives its nomination to a candidate who has failed to meet that test.
It is important that party leaders and funders stop believing they must now embrace Cruz. In urging a vote for Cruz, they are not embracing his candidacy; they are simply taking the first step in ensuring that the convention will have the opportunity to turn elsewhere for the sake of both the party and the United States. Once it is clear that no candidate has won the right to be nominated, the party can then look to whoever appears to provide the best opportunity to win in November or at least prevent a wholesale wipeout of other Republican candidates on the ballot.
Either Trump or Cruz would be a disaster — as a nominee or as president — and cause a great many serious-minded party members to sit this election out, vote for the Democratic candidate as less harmful to the country, or find a third-party candidate to support. Only by rejecting both Trump and Cruz can the Republican Party save itself.
Former Republican US representative Mickey Edwards is author of “The Parties Versus the People: How To Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans” and vice president of the Aspen Institute.