I suspect that quite a few #NeverTrumpers have been taken aback by recent polls that show Donald Trump pulling even with, or ahead of, Hillary Clinton. If you are a conservative/Republican, two distinct reasons have been advanced for opposing Trump. The first is that he is disqualified from the presidency on the merits, and is even more unacceptable than Hillary. The second is that he is destined to go down to a crushing defeat, so that other Republicans and their supporters should cut him loose, condemn him, and try to save themselves.
The first rationale still exists, although I do not agree with it. As I have said many times, Trump wasn’t my first choice for the Republican nomination, nor was he in my top ten, but he won the nomination and I have little doubt that he would make a better president than Hillary Clinton, which I see as the only relevant standard. Therefore I support him.
The second rationale has, I think, disappeared. The pattern this year has been that when Trump avoids major mistakes (like spending days fighting with Khizr Khan), he pulls even in the polls. Then he makes another blunder and drops down again. If he can sustain message discipline, continue to give good speeches on the economy, immigration and race, and avoid the self-inflicted wounds that so often occur when he is riffing on the podium or tweeting thoughtlessly, I think he will win. In any event, he certainly may win, which is enough to demolish the “Trump is leading the GOP to a devastating loss in 2016” theme.*
Why is this important? Because I think some Trump critics have tended to conflate the “he can’t win” and “he shouldn’t win” arguments. They thereby, in my view, shore up one bad argument with another bad argument. (See, e.g., Joe Scarborough, Tim Carney, Senator Jeff Flake and Politico’s “Republican insiders.”)
If we accept that Trump has a reasonable chance, and there is no reason to expect that getting behind him will lead to a catastrophic defeat for the Republican Party, then the only issue is whether he deserves our support on the merits. As noted above, I believe that he does if we think he would be a better president than Mrs. Clinton. Others take a different approach by imposing a minimum standard which they think Trump fails to meet; they therefore support one of the other candidates, or do not plan to vote. Either way, the focus is on Trump’s qualities as a potential president, not on the assumption that any comparison between him and Hillary is immaterial because he is destined to be clobbered in November.
I think that the more we focus on the merits–a fair comparison between Trump and Mrs. Clinton–the more tenuous the #NeverTrump position becomes.
PAUL ADDS: Except as it may apply to candidates for office, I don’t understand the argument that conservatives should not support Trump because he is destined to go down to a crushing defeat. Trump is unlikely to be crushed if conservatives support him. And not voting in the presidential race won’t help down-ballot candidates.
I agree with John, however, that there’s a potential link between the question of whether Trump can win and the question of whether conservatives should vote for him. For conservatives who believe that Trump would make a better president than Hillary but that neither is acceptable, it will be easier to refuse to vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils if he has no chance of winning. Why do something as distasteful as voting for Trump if he can’t win?
* Of course, a particular Republican politician may choose to distance himself from the nominee for political reasons, based on his own district’s propensities. But that is a separate question, and in my view, based on current polling and the issues swirling around Hillary Clinton, the number of GOP politicians who would be wise to do so is small.