Playing the "What if?" game: The alternate reality where Trump vs. Clinton never happens

Jeb, Cruz, Rubio? They couldn't beat Hillary either — nor could anyone in the GOP's "deep bench"

Published August 12, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Jeb Bush; Ted Cruz; Marco Rubio   (AP/Reuters/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Julie Jacobson/Jim Bourg)
Jeb Bush; Ted Cruz; Marco Rubio (AP/Reuters/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Julie Jacobson/Jim Bourg)

One of the phrases of the 2016 presidential race that will linger in campaign lore for years is the belief that the Republican Party’s slate of 17 candidates constituted a “deep bench.” And ever since 16 of those candidates were wiped out by the tangerine-colored menace that is Donald Trump, members of the Never Trump forces have bemoaned that the party base picked the one guy who cannot beat the historically unpopular Hillary Clinton. What if they had picked Ted Cruz? Or Marco Rubio? Or Jeb Bush? Ah, then we would have a race!

This is all to be expected from conservatives. Lately, though, there has been some idle chatter among the more mainstream press along the same lines. If Clinton’s lead gets so big and Trump’s campaign remains so threadbare and incompetent that the race is basically over in August, what will we talk about for the next 90 days?

If only the GOP had plucked some other candidate from that deep bench! Clinton would be losing, and we would all be spending our time talking about something more interesting, like her emails. (Really, is there anyone out there who thinks the email story has been under-covered?)

The assumption that Clinton would be such a weak candidate that she would be automatically losing to any other Republican falls apart the moment you remember that the other Republicans who ran for the nomination were all beaten by Trump. More than that, it requires a certain amnesia about the other candidates. Presumably, had Trump not run, the party would have coalesced behind someone else. But whether any of the other 16 mountebanks could have appealed outside of the GOP base is an enormous question mark.

Look at that bench again. There was Ted Cruz, a hardcore Christian whose family literally thought he was called by God to become the president, a sentiment that would have been unsustainable in a general election, and who was so disliked within the party that many of his colleagues actually preferred Trump. There was Marco Rubio, a feather duster in a suit who famously tried to run his campaign on the cheap and couldn’t shake the impression that he was lazy. There was Chris Christie, a loudmouthed bully and walking New Jersey stereotype whose own state has grown to hate him. There was Jeb Bush, whose $100-million war chest could not disguise his lack of charisma and seeming disinterest in the job.

John Kasich? Carly Fiorina? Scott Walker? Rand Paul? None of them, or anyone mentioned above with the possible exception of Cruz, showed any ability to build or lead a campaign infrastructure that could be quickly scaled up to take on the challenge of running nationally. Even assuming GOP donors who have deserted Trump would have thrown themselves behind one of the other members of the bench, there is zero reason to think any of them would have been up to the grind, or possessed the organizational skills they would need to beat Clinton, who has been building her campaign for at least two years.

More than organizational skills, though, none of these candidates had much in the way of policies to offer. What they had was a sense of grievance and anger, a solid belief that they would be facing the most corrupt Democrat the party had ever nominated. Whether that last fact is true or not was beside the point.

Which leads to the main reason why any wistfulness for a Republican nominee who would be beating Clinton is so silly: the GOP that would have nominated such a candidate does not exist. It has not existed for years. Why pretend that a candidate with more mainstream appeal could have come out of a primary season where he or she had to appeal to the basest instincts of the party?

The GOP that does exist, the one that vomited up Donald Trump, has spent decades feeding its base a diet of angry rhetoric and personal attacks, instead of honest attempts at governance. It is a party that has spent 25 years hitting Hillary Clinton with dishonest attacks, driving down her favorability ratings even while alleged scandal after alleged scandal petered out into nothing. (And then blaming, ironically, the same press now carping about her for protecting her.)

The GOP that exists is a party that has spent the last eight years claiming Barack Obama is a unique threat to America, one who required unprecedented resistance to stop his agenda to turn the nation into a socialist hellhole. Then, having failed to stop him, the party is shocked, SHOCKED to see its base turn to the know-nothing authoritarian outsider who promises to save them all from the disaster their own party has convinced them the nation has become.

For the GOP to nominate someone capable of beating Hillary Clinton in 2016, it would have had to have been a completely different GOP since at least 1992. And if that GOP existed, Clinton would not be a weak and unpopular figure, because she would not have spent 25 years being hit with every ridiculous charge under the sun. So you can’t assume she would be losing this campaign.

No, what we have with Donald Trump is the world the GOP has made. As unique a threat as he is, it does no one any good to spend time pining for a better one.

By Gary Legum

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