Playing the Trump Card on Mark Sanford

Rumors have been swirling that former congressman and state governor, Mark Sanford, may join Bill Weld and Joe Walsh in issuing a Republican primary challenge to President Trump.  None of these three stand a chance of defeating Trump, of course, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t gotten the president’s attention:

For those of you confused by the “Appalachian Trail” remark, Trump is referring to the high-profile revelation of Sanford’s extra-martial affair, 10 years ago with a woman in Argentina, while Sanford was still the Governor of South Carolina. At the time, to explain his almost week-long disappearance from the public eye, Sanford’s staff claimed that he was instead hiking the Appalachian Trail.

And for those of you confused by how Trump, who has cheated on all three of his wives (including with a porn star he later paid to keep quiet about it), can blast someone’s marital infidelity without setting himself up for enormous mockery, let’s just concede that both shame and self-awareness are effectively dead in today’s politics.

(Unless, of course, Trump was making a purely nationalist argument, being that Sanford’s affair was abroad, while Trump’s affairs were domestic. Perhaps the issue can be solved with tariffs.)

Anyway, at best, a vote for any of Trump’s primary opponents will serve only as a protest message from Republicans and conservatives who have had it with the president. This isn’t necessarily a bad way of voicing such discontent. In fact, I think it’s a good idea, if only for the sake of a substantive debate on the party’s future.

But there’s a problem. Each of these challengers or potential challengers carries baggage that muddies that message.

With Sanford, it’s the Appalachian Trail. With Weld, it’s his description of himself as “the most pro-choice person you’re ever going to meet.” And with Walsh, it’s a documented history of racist and other incendiary comments, conspiracy theories, and even suggestions of violence (including in support of Trump in 2016).

I think we can fairly say that Walsh more than just “muddies” the message. He may well take a blowtorch to it.

All of these individuals (and any others that eventually step forward) will of course be lambasted by President Trump, the GOP establishment and the conservative media (which are undeniably beholden to Trump), and Trump supporters. No surprise there.

What does surprise me (a little bit anyway) are the expressed reactions of some on the right, including people I very much like and respect, who are by no means Trump enthusiasts.

A couple of examples:

Again, I agree with the point about tainted messaging. I also understand (and share) the frustration a lot of people have with Bill Kristol and others who are so fervently anti-Trump that they would support literally any Republican (and a number of Democrats), including Joe Walsh, just because it could potentially weaken the president.

But I think it needs to be said that Mark Sanford is no Joe Walsh.

He’s also no Donald Trump.

Painting all three with the same brush, suggesting they are immorally equivalent, and concluding that they’re equally bad choices, seems…a bit unfair.

Unless Sanford has a history of racist remarks, wild conspiracy theories, incendiary rhetoric, alarmingly thin skin, and a breathtaking incapacity to tell the truth, I think his standing is notably better.

Believe me when I say I have no particular affection for Sanford. I agree with him on a lot of political issues (he’s a small-government, free-market guy who gets foreign policy), but that’s a separate thing from character issues. I’m largely indifferent on his possible candidacy, and ten years ago I was shaking my head at the embarrassing details of his well-publicized affair like everyone else.

But if cheating on one’s wife makes someone no better nor fit to serve than…let’s say Donald Trump, what does that say about someone like… John McCain?

I mean, I don’t think anyone other than the loyal Trump faithful (who thought McCain was the devil) would argue that McCain wasn’t more fit to serve and more morally decent and competent than Donald Trump, despite McCain’s marital indiscretions during his first marriage.

Thus, should that issue alone forever define someone as an individual or a leader?

“Yes” is certainly a valid answer if applied consistently, but it’s worth remembering that the issue has been barely visible on the political right, even in presidential politics, for quite some time. For better of for worse, the card wasn’t played against a number of prior Republican candidates, including McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and even Donald Trump in 2016 (when his affairs during his first two marriages were quite well known).

I’m not defending cheating, of course, nor will I ever. It’s a betrayal of trust that is real, consequential, and absolutely fair game when weighing an individual’s moral character. But should it be the only and eternal measure of someone, when evaluating their fitness for office?

I think a sense of perspective is important — the same sense many of us apply when contrasting the insincerity of the average politician with the habitual and persistent dishonesty of President Trump. Some failings are definitive of the person. Others, hopefully, can be redeemed.

Yes, it’s frustrating for us conservative Trump critics and skeptics that we don’t have a particularly compelling or viable Republican alternative to the president, going into 2020. But I also don’t think we should let that frustration shelve our sense of perspective.

If our instinct is to cast any transparently flawed challenger to Trump as “the same as Trump,” and thus deem them disqualifying, aren’t we undercutting our larger thesis on why Trump should be challenged in the first place?

George Stephanopoulos’ Contraception Fixation

In last Saturday’s GOP presidential debate, ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos asked Mitt Romney an unusual question. He wanted to know if the former Massachusetts governor believed that states had the right to ban the use of contraception. When Romney voiced his opinion that the question was both odd and irrelevant since no states or candidates were interested in banning contraception, Stephanopoulos was persistent in trying to get the former Massachusetts governor to answer it. His repeated attempts prompted audible groans from the audience. In the end, Romney essentially denied Stephanopoulous whatever response he was hoping to evoke.

Now, it’s pretty safe to say that the question was not posed due to genuine public interest in the topic. In fact, I would very much doubt that any of the candidates have fielded such a question while talking to voters. So, one might be wondering what Stephanopoulous was trying to get at. To me, it was fairly obvious. He was trying to get Romney’s contraception views on record, and he was doing it under the guise of states’ rights so it wouldn’t sound as obviously partisan. If Romney hadn’t slapped down the question, I’m sure it would have been asked of the other candidates as well.  Why does George care, or think anyone else cares? Well, he most likely doesn’t. But putting forth such a question plays perfectly into a political strategy that the Democratic party found success in during the 2010 elections.

I wrote an entire column on this brainchild back in August, known to Democratic strategists as “The Colorado Model”. The gist of the strategy is to highlight the personal, social beliefs of a rival candidate, form a narrative that the candidate plans on implementing those beliefs into policy if elected, and then promote that narrative with a concentrated, relentless media attack campaign on how that candidate is “too extreme”.

The example I used was the U.S. Senatorial race here in Colorado between incumbent Michael Bennet (D) and challenger Ken Buck (R). Heading into the 2010 campaign, the political environment was looking just as good for conservatives here as it was throughout the rest of the country, thanks to the Tea Party uprising. But the tide began to turn once the Bennet campaign and outside groups focused their efforts almost entirely on the notion that Buck was “too extreme”. They did this by running an almost endless barrage of commercials that cited his personal beliefs on gay marriage, abortion exceptions, and most notably… contraception. Buck never ran on any of those issues, yet they became the focus of the campaign. By election day, few were talking about Bennet’s support of Obamacare and rest of the administration’s unpopular policies. Instead, they were talking about Buck being “too extreme”. This led to a narrow win for Bennet.

To my surprise, Buck actually read my column back in August and contacted me shortly after it had been posted to this site. We had a cordial conversation, and during it, he mentioned that he had actually never expressed an opposition to contraception. I was stunned by that revelation, so I researched it. Sure enough, I couldn’t find a single quote by him that even suggested it.  It was apparently something that had merely been inferred by third-party, deductive reasoning and was never substantiated. Yet, it had been a key factor in the race.

With an issue so sensitive, it apparently doesn’t take all that much to transform a mere assertion into an effective weapon… And George Stephanopoulous certainly recognizes that.

From a logical standpoint, I’m somewhat surprised that ABC News even allows Stephanopoulos to moderate Republican debates in the first place. Sure, I get it… He’s no longer a professional political adviser for Bill Clinton and the Democratic party. He’s now the charming commentator we see on television each morning, yucking it up with celebrities and presenting the news of the day. But something tells me that there’d be some serious criticism over the issue of objectivity if ABC News let Karl Rove moderate a Democratic debate. Really, what’s the difference? Rove is still politically active, but so is George. The Politico reported in 2009 that Stephanopoulos conducts daily strategy chats with former colleagues Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s chief of staff at the time), Paul Begala, and James Carville. If he’s helping to shape the messaging of the Democratic party, why is he helping to shape the questioning at Republican debates?

I guess I’ve got to hand it to the Republican candidates for agreeing to participate in a debate moderated by a seasoned political opponent. It at least brought a little attention to how ideologically-driven the media really is. And that’s always welcome.

Is “President Gingrich” Really That Frightening?

ging2It’s important for a political party to question the electability of its candidates, especially when it comes to the presidency. If a candidate isn’t electable in the general election, it matters little how popular he or she is with the base. Thus, I totally understand Republicans’ reservations with Newt Gingrich. The man carries a lot of personal and professional baggage with him, which has been pointed out so often that it’s not worth recapping here.

Up until a couple of weeks ago, the electability factor had been the greatest argument against Gingrich’ candidacy. But that dramatically changed once he showed some staying power as the Republican front runner. Now, with the Iowa caucus quickly approaching, we’ve seen a dramatic difference in the type of friendly fire criticism coming from the right. It’s now less about his prospects of beating Obama than it is about his mental competency to be the next president.

The current narrative is that he’s no longer just the guy who cheated on two wives and fought ethics violations. He’s now the Republican Boogie Man! A radical and reckless loon who would poison the presidency if elected! We expect this caricature of Republican candidates coming from liberals (and the left has certainly been hysterical over Gingrich), but rarely do we see it coming from fellow conservatives…

Conservative writer Peggy Noonan recently wrote that Gingrich is a “human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, ‘Watch this!’”

Former Republican governor of New Hampshire, John Sununu, claims that Gingrich has a “congenital problem” of not being able to prioritize anything above his own ego.

Former Republican congresswoman, Susan Molinari, said she is “terrified to death” of Newt becoming the nominee.

Congressman Peter King and Senator Tom Coburn (both Republicans) have voiced doubt that they could even support Gingrich as their party’s nominee.

The editors of the prominent conservative publication, The National Review, wrote a very rough piece on Gingrich, urging readers to exclude him from their consideration.

Conservative author Ann Coulter and radio host Glenn Beck have labeled him as a big government progressive with radical ideas, cut from the same liberal mold as Barack Obama.

Fellow candidate, Mitt Romney, even felt comfortable suggesting that Newt was zany and unstable.

What has happened here?

Is Newt really such an erratic individual that the thought of him representing the Republican party prompts prominent conservatives to seriously consider voting for a third-party candidate? Isn’t this the same guy who lead the Republican party to their first control of the House of Representatives in 40 years? Isn’t this the same guy who was instrumental in successfully reforming our welfare system? Isn’t this the guy who helped balance the federal budget? Wasn’t Newt’s pressure on the White House one of the reasons Bill Clinton is widely recognized as a fiscally successful president?

Is the idea of Newt as our president really that horrifying? To be honest, I’m not sure I know the answer.

Like many, I’ve always been impressed with Gingrich’s knowledge of the issues, his abundance of practical ideas, and his articulate and unapologetic defense of conservative values and policies. I would love to see him debate our president, effectively expose the failures of the current administration, and promote conservative solutions using historical context to justify their worth.

That being said, I’m the first to recognize that he’s a flawed candidate. Despite the assertion that he’s matured since his days as Speaker, he’s made some recent off the cuff remarks that I find unsettling. In fact, his criticism of Congressman Paul Ryan’s entitlement reform proposal initially made him a non-starter for me.

But can’t the same be said for the rest of the Republican field as well? They’ve all made the occasional sketchy statement, but no one’s categorizing any of the others as being nuts. Well, maybe they are about Ron Paul.

Regardless of the motivations of his detractors, I think the conservative cause hurts itself when one of its most effective orators is treated by the rest as if he’s Hannibal Lecter. I understand that time is running out, and people should speak out now if they have concerns over candidates who would go on to represent them. I just hope that such animated criticism of Gingrich is coming from an honest concern, and is not merely the right’s borrowing of the left’s smear tactics to promote a different candidate.

Members of the Republican base who have been leaning toward Gingrich are going to have to decide quickly which Newt they believe in: The bold and brilliant leader or the eccentric and unhinged provocateur. And once they’ve answered that question, they’ll need to decide if he’s worth the gamble when they can pinch their noses, vote for the presumed more viable candidate in Mitt Romney, and hope they’ve made the right decision come the general election.