The belief is widespread on the right — and maybe on the left as well — that a run-of-the-mill Republican candidate would be even with or ahead of Hillary Clinton at this stage in the race. Take a plain-wrap Republican, give him a professional campaign with adequate fundraising from both small and big donors (whom Donald Trump has scared away) and a reasonable message. Then make the campaign about Clinton. Presto! You have a candidate at the very least doing a heck of a lot better than Trump, the thinking goes.
Let’s take a hypothetical plan-wrap Republican — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, for example. Here are a bunch of things he’d do differently:
1. There would be no vile insults and over-the-top speculation about non-issues (e.g., calling Clinton a “bigot,” questioning her health, speculating about Huma Abedin’s husband). No smearing of immigrants, women or prisoners of war, or attacks on a sitting judge. Meanwhile, attacks on his opponent could be precise and accurate: Her email scheme was a huge lapse in judgment showing she put personal convenience/secrecy above national security. The Clinton Foundation and lucrative speech opportunities created conflicts of interest that fuel suspicion and cynicism about government.
2. The Republican would focus on domestic weaknesses. As Byron York points out, “The exchanges created by Barack Obama’s signature achievement are attracting millions fewer customers than predicted. The makeup of the system’s risk pool is older, sicker and costlier than anticipated. Some of the largest insurers in the nation have pulled out of the exchanges. Premiums are going up and expected to jump right before November’s election. Perhaps more burdensome, deductibles have soared so high that some Americans who purchased coverage through the system are essentially self-financing their care.” A competent Republican would pound away at that — and have an alternative health-care plan of his own.
3. The Republican would talk about anemic growth and the additional burdens Democrats want to put on business (e.g., regulations, taxes). The Republican might even — gasp! — have a responsible pro-growth plan of his own, including corporate tax reform, payroll tax cuts to helping working-class Americans, trade agreements, worker-training and school reform (especially school choice), and sensible entitlement reform (which Clinton declines to consider). Clinton’s flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership would then become a potent issue.
4. The Republican would have one immigration plan. As Jeb Bush recommended, it would marry border control and visa-overstay detection with reform of legal immigration and a path to legalization for non-criminals who are working, in school or in the military. It wouldn’t change every other day. It wouldn’t envision mass deportation. And there would be no discussion of a “Muslim ban,” a counterproductive and entirely unnecessary measure. Immigration would be part of a pro-growth package.
5. The Republican would make military funding an issue. Clinton talks a tougher game, but is she willing to pay for the military we need? A savvy Republican would adopt the bipartisan recommendation of numerous experts, namely the fiscal 2012 budget recommended by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. That would include a bevy of reforms on procurement, health care and civilian staffing.
6. The Republican would make a fact-based argument about the Iran deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has not, contrary to administration claims, cut off all paths for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. It does not include anytime/anywhere inspections. In the wake of the deal, Iran’s human rights abuses, support for terrorism and regional aggression (including illegal missile tests) have increased. Clinton, however, supports the deal. A systematic critique of the deal and a plan to minimize and reverse the damage done to the West’s security would be on the table.
7. The Republican would have a unifying message. Rather than insult minorities and women or misrepresent their lives (“a disaster” is how Trump describes all African Americans’ lives), the GOP nominee would not have left the “stronger together” message to Hillary. Policies to help the middle class and to attack poverty (regardless of race) could have borrowed extensively from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s plan. The Republican could paint Clinton as the advocate of zero-sum economics rather than a booming economy where all can prosper.
8. The Republican’s temperament and character would not become the central issue. A calm, cheery, stable nominee would not be crippled by the widespread view that he is ignorant, cruel, self-centered and out of touch with reality. There would be no litany of business failures and maneuvers that left the little guy holding the bag. He would not need to be charismatic, just down to earth.
9. Competence would be a problem for Clinton, not the Republican. Scandals at the State Department, the Benghazi disaster and administrative screw-ups could be front and center. Benghazi would be an example of not some convoluted conspiracy but of lack of follow-through and misjudgment as to whether Islamists were “on their heels.”
10. The Republican would have a record of accomplishing things for ordinary Americans. Instead of someone who lied about charitable gifts and claims to have “sacrificed” by increasing his own wealth, there could be a candidate who solved the problems of real people, a candidate who in both private and public dealings treated others with respect, generosity and simple decency.
Amazing, isn’t it? Just a “normal” Republican would have sidestepped most of Trump’s colossal errors. Not only Pence but Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich could all have been running that race. Had any of them prevailed in the primaries, Clinton would be looking at defeat.
It’s worth asking what dysfunction on the right exists that helped elevate the candidate uniquely incapable of running a sane, effective campaign. The road to the GOP’s recovery might begin with finding out why sane, competent and prepared candidates cannot get the presidential nomination.