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Opinion Imagine if Republicans hadn’t lost their minds

As Donald Trump flailed and sniffled his way through the presidential debate on Monday night, one could not help but imagine: What if the Republicans had nominated any of the “normal,” reasonable Republicans, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former Florida governor Jeb Bush or Ohio Gov. John Kasich?

Most of the debate Monday night would not have occurred. All of these men possess government experience, and none can be accused of hiding their tax returns or playing fast and loose with their charitable foundation or charitable giving. None evaded military service; Graham served as a lawyer in the Air Force in both active duty and reserves. (Graham, a former JAG officer, could have had fun with Hillary Clinton’s email debacle and its implications for national security.)

None has a record of stiffing small-business people or exaggerating his wealth. Three have had one wife only; Graham was never married but helped raised his sister when their parents died. None backed the birther nonsense. None of them can be accused of ever (let alone, routinely) making misogynistic or xenophobic remarks. None is a bully who would have constantly interrupted, made faces and hinted that he intended to bring up Clinton husband’s past affairs.

House Speaker Paul Ryan praised Donald Trump’s performance against Hillary Clinton in the first presidential debate. (Video: The Washington Post)

Republicans, are you feeling the buyer’s remorse, yet? You should be. Any candidate, and these are no exception, has faults, but consider the lines of attack they — but not Trump — could have pursued:

Both of the governors have robust records on achieving school reform and have demonstrated fiscal sobriety. The two senators have introduced a raft of legislation from secondary school reform to anti-terrorism measures. They could therefore criticize Clinton’s domestic agenda as costly, old-style big government. They could have zinged her on the shortcomings of Obamacare (rising premiums, loss of choice of carriers and doctors) and taken her to task for neglecting entitlement reform.

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All could have gone after her for Russian reset. The conservative John Hay Initiative, for example, as part of a series of primers on issues for 2016, has a user-friendly information sheet with all sorts of relevant facts and insightful questions that could have been marshaled against Clinton on Russia:

Although designed to pursue “win-win” approaches to global problems, the reset policy triggered a series of U.S. concessions to Russia.
These included: Overhauling the Bush administration’s U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe to placate Russian concerns; Downgrading U.S. relations with nations in Central and Eastern Europe, including Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine; Withdrawing U.S. brigade combat teams and other military forces from Europe in the years prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; De-linking Russia’s severely deteriorating human rights situation from other items in the bilateral agenda. . .
Isn’t the Obama administration’s decision to return U.S. military forces to Europe in recent years a de facto admission of reset’s failure?
Didn’t the reset policy come far too soon after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and demonstrate that Russian aggression carried few costs?  Shouldn’t sanctions—rather than reset—have been the right approach?

Trump would offer even more concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course.

None of the four Republicans favor a weirdly isolationist/pro-nuclear weapons proliferation/anti-NATO bent. Instead they could have made the case that the Obama administration led from behind, blundered in Syria, neglected allies and cut bad deals with Iran and Cuba. All four Republicans care about human rights and could have taken the Obama-Clinton administration to task for neglecting the concerns of persecuted minorities and failing to exert quiet pressure on Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others. (And for good measure, they could have chided Clinton over her foundation taking money from human rights scofflaws.)

Since Bush, Kasich, Rubio and Graham never drank the anti-trade Kool-Aid, they would have been in a position to blast her flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and avoid the falsehoods and exaggerations Trump routinely spouts. They could have pointed out virtually nothing in her agenda addresses the critical issue: How do we boost productivity?

They all support comprehensive immigration reform (Graham and Rubio were part of the Gang of 8) and could ask what Clinton ever did to promote immigration reform. All are in favor of reforming legal immigration to enhance the entry of highly skilled people needed for our economy. There, too, they could have quizzed Clinton: Why didn’t the administration pursue legal immigration reform?

Since all four have at least a solid understanding of the Constitution and worry about the executive branch’s abuse of power and overreach, they could have pointed to the slew of court decisions (on water regulations, immigration, etc.) that slapped down Obama administration attempts to rule by executive fiat.  They could have appealed to voters who  are concerned about abusive power, skeptical of giant bureaucracy and worried about undemocratic tendencies that cut out the people’s representatives.

In short, the GOP could have nominated an ethically sound, experienced, and reasonable center-right candidate who could have given Clinton fits. All had very plausible lines of attack (whether you agree with them or not) that Clinton would have had to wrestle with. All could have exploited her ethical weaknesses far better than Trump — by far the most egregious liar of the two — ever could. Instead, the GOP nominated the most unstable, ignorant, bigoted and ethically deficient candidate ever to have gotten a major-party nomination — arguably the only Republican in the field who could not have shown Clinton up on the stage Monday night. Great going, Republicans.