Insulting Donald Trump Isn’t Enough

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Republican insiders who fear a Trump presidency need to actively endorse the only plausible alternative.

By Seth Masket

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Robert Gates. (Photo: Rod Lamkey Jr/Getty Images)

Robert M. Gates is a rare figure in American politics. A Republican who served in prominent leadership positions under both Presidents Bush as well as President Barack Obama, and who tends to focus on governing rather than electoral politics, he commands bipartisan respect in Washington, D.C. His words are taken seriously, particularly among those who care about American foreign policy. Which is why his recent Wall Street Journal article was such a travesty.

In the piece, Gates surveys many of the global hotspots, from Russia to North Korea to the Middle East, and expresses concerns about the major party presidential candidates’ public stances toward them. But his language suggests he is far from neutral between the candidates.

Hillary Clinton, Gates writes, has “credibility issues,” and has been silent on some important matters. But Donald Trump “has been cavalier about the use of nuclear weapons” and is “willfully ignorant about the rest of the world.” “The world we confront,” Gates writes, “is too perilous and too complex to have as president a man who believes he, and he alone, has all the answers and has no need to listen to anyone.”

Gates then concludes his piece with these two paragraphs:

Mrs. Clinton has time before the election to address forthrightly her trustworthiness, to reassure people about her judgment, to demonstrate her willingness to stake out one or more positions on national security at odds with her party’s conventional wisdom, and to speak beyond generalities about how she would deal with China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, the Middle East — and international trade. Whether and how she addresses these issues will, I believe, affect how many people vote — including me.

At least on national security, I believe Mr. Trump is beyond repair. He is stubbornly uninformed about the world and how to lead our country and government, and temperamentally unsuited to lead our men and women in uniform. He is unqualified and unfit to be commander-in-chief.

In other words, Gates has determined that his own party’s nominee is a danger to the country and the world and must not become president. But he has refused to back the only person standing in Trump’s way, waiting to see see whether she can “address forthrightly her trustworthiness.”

This is an absurd and irresponsible stance for two reasons. First, Clinton has been in public life since the early 1990s. I don’t know what exactly Gates is looking for in her. But if he hasn’t seen it in her eight years as first lady, eight years as a senator, and four years as secretary of state, he’s not going to see it in seven more weeks of campaigning.

Second, as Gates well knows, one of these two people will be sworn in as president next January. The options are on the table, and the contest is close. If Gates truly believes, as he says, that Trump is a menace to the nation and the world, there is only one candidate who can stop him. Gates’ endorsement of Clinton would have been taken very seriously, particularly by Republican voters and elites who are currently weighing options for Election Day, such as staying home or voting for a third-party candidate. But Gates won’t go that far, thus joining the ranks of Republican leaders who officially oppose Trump but won’t actually endorse Clinton.

This is precisely the mistake that many Republican leaders took during the primaries and caucuses. They saw Trump as an irresponsible man and a potentially disastrous nominee, and proclaimed that they would never back him. But they were either unable or unwilling to back a credible alternative, such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich. Perhaps they slept better at night as a result, but Trump still became their nominee.

Gates seems to be pursuing the same path, insulting Trump and clearing his own conscience, but refusing to take the step that could actually help prevent Trump’s election. Oh, sure, his approach is more heroic than that of Republican insiders who anonymously criticize Clinton for failing to resoundingly defeat their own nominee. But it’s far short of what’s needed to affect the election.

Backing the other party’s nominee is no small step, and it would undoubtedly carry a political cost. But Republican leaders who truly fear a Trump presidency need to decide whether their goal is to prevent it from happening or to sleep a few more hours at night.

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