Michael Gerson’s latest column attacking Donald Trump bemoans the fact that Marco Rubio has endorsed the tycoon and the prospect that Paul Ryan soon may do so. More on that later.
The passage from Gerson that caught my eye is this one:
Here is the problem in sum: Republicans have not been given the option of choosing the lesser of two evils. The GOP has selected someone who is unfit to be president, lacking the temperament, stability, judgment and compassion to occupy the office.
But Gerson’s second sentence doesn’t really support his first. It’s possible that a candidate unfit to be president may still be the lesser of two evils. This might be because the other candidate is even worse in terms of personality and character or because she is about as bad in those terms and worse in terms of policy.
There are two possible approaches for who believe that Trump is awful but that Hillary Clinton is probably worse: idealist and pragmatic.
The idealist says: There are standards of decency that must be upheld. Trump fails to meet them. I simply cannot in good conscience vote for a candidate as flawed and potentially dangerous as Donald Trump.
The pragmatist says: This election is about picking a president, not upholding ideals. Either Trump or Clinton will be our next president. If Clinton would likely be an appreciably worse president than Trump, I feel obligated to vote for Trump.
To me, neither view is unreasonable. However, it may be useful to distinguish here between individual voters and political leaders like Rubio, Ryan, and Rick Perry (whom Gerson has also attacked for backing Trump after excoriating him during the campaign).
The individual voter’s decision isn’t going to matter except to that individual. His ballot will be is just one of 130 to 140 million cast. He can afford to be idealistic.
This is less true, if true at all, of Rick Perry, the popular and influential ex-governor of a state with 38 electoral votes; or Marco Rubio, a Florida Senator whose views carry weight among a fairly large segment of the electorate in a state with 29 electoral votes; or Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House whose views are widely respected.
Political leaders arguably have a duty to be pragmatic about this election. At a minimum, they can be excused for being that way.
For a Republican leader, pragmatism might cut in one of several directions — support Trump, support a third candidate, or don’t support anyone (supporting Clinton seems out of the question). Most likely, it will lead to a decision to back Trump.
That decision should not be condemned.