In a double whammy redux of the worst of 2016, it’s not just that Democrats are once again pretending that mainstream conservatives are more dangerous than Donald Trump. Now, the dregs of the GOP are in on the game, playing footsie with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in his bid to challenge Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Despite multiple criminal indictments, the remaining legal fallout of his attempt to steal the 2020 election, and a civil court finding he was responsible for sexually battering E. Jean Carroll, Trump has attracted Strange (re)New(ed) Respect from those who once branded him uniquely damaging to democracy. It’s not just MSNBC pundits, Salon bloggers, and pretentious progressives at the New Republic who are pushing the line that Ron DeSantis is more dangerous than Trump. Bill Kristol, who has rebranded his entire professional career as an ostensibly anti-Trump statesman-cum-tweeter of the #Resistance, has blasted the Florida governor as “beta,” while applauding the “alpha” Trump.
On the other side of the aisle, some of the worst clout-chasing “conservatives” have begun a less-than-careful courtship with the Hugo Chavez-loving leftist Barack Obama once considered to run his Environmental Protection Agency. So what if Kennedy wants to jail “climate deniers” and imprison the Koch brothers in the Hague for the crime of treason (which is punishable by death)?
That didn’t stop billionaire DeSantis donor David Sacks from boosting Kennedy, or Jenna Ellis, the attorney censured for lying during Trump’s campaign to steal the 2020 election, from saying Kennedy is “principled and understands the Constitution and its guarantee to protect the rights of Americans.” And for what reasons would a supposed constitutional conservative say such a thing about a man who has blamed the NRA for school shootings, called for the federal government to revoke nonprofit status from the Heritage Foundation, and jail people for free speech?
“He’s for free speech, for open debate, against vax mandates, against the war in Ukraine, for 2A (solutions other than gun control), for securing the border, for criticizing problems in his own party, and he’s not a neocon warmonger uniparty establishment hack,” Ellis says.
As evidenced by the above, it’s hard to argue that the first is remotely true, so what gives? It seems obvious that just as Democrats thought (and still think) that Trump is easier to beat than his primary competitors in a general election, ostensible conservatives believe that RFK Jr. can be used to knock out Biden and secure a GOP victory in 2024, especially in the case of Sacks, who is literally banking his own political influence on DeSantis winning the ultimate prize next year.
Well, both sides should be very careful what they wish for, as the potential gain of choosing a weaker general election opponent is, as a matter of probability, much less statistically significant than the consequences of losing that gamble.
Right before the pandemic hit in 2020, I warned conservatives that hoping that Bernie Sanders bested Biden were playing with fire. Sure, perhaps the Vermont senator was, let’s say, 10% less likely than Biden to beat Trump. But in a general election, even the worst candidates (think Walter Mondale in the 1984 election) still can bank on at least 40% of the popular vote. For an example of translating the probability of the Electoral College, recall that FiveThirtyEight granting Trump a 33% chance of winning was considered an outlier. That was still a one-in-three shot of victory! If liberals genuinely believed what they said at the time, why would any choose the one-in-three odds of a once-in-a-generation threat to democracy winning in 2016, rather than a one-in-two chance of, say, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz winning? So in 2020, when Trump was much more likely to win as a result of the booming economy prior to the pandemic, I urged conservatives to embrace a one-in-two chance of Biden winning rather than a one-in-three chance of an overtly socialist president.
Let’s say the worst policy priorities Democrats project on DeSantis are true. Let’s say he does want to expand defamation law by undermining NYT v. Sullivan or enact a national abortion restriction at some level. Well, consider the roadblock of the Supreme Court for the former and the legislative filibuster for the latter. Do you really believe that DeSantis has less respect for the norms of an independent and apolitical judiciary or legislative bulwarks than Trump, who railed against both at various times in his presidency?
Or worse, do you believe that if DeSantis lost a nailbiter election against his Democratic challenger, that he would use his bully pulpit to convince his followers that the election was rigged, the actual victor illegitimate, and that they should storm the Capitol (and immolate themselves legally) in what amounts to a disgraceful and disgusting tantrum on the global stage?
And Republicans, really consider whether a second term of an octogenarian Biden, who does not have the congressional allies or the personal stamina to do much more damage, would really be worse than a conspiracy theorizing climate absolutist who seems keen to abolish oil- and nuclear-based energy in favor of rendering us solely reliant on renewables, in effect, returning America to the High Middle Ages.
We’re a whole lot more entrenched in our polarization than we were when Mondale lost all but one state to Ronald Reagan. The floor for any politician of the two parties is at least 46% of the popular vote now, rather than 40%, meaning that any Electoral College vote is more like flipping a coin than rolling a dice, statistically speaking. With odds like those, partisans would be a little wiser to accept a stronger general election opponent if only to hedge against the fact that these days, there’s a very real chance that even the worst politicians can eke out a win to become the leader of the free world.