Record numbers of Americans see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as unacceptable choices for president in 2016, which has led to an unusual amount of interest in third party candidates in this election, the two most significant being Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein.
Then there’s Evan McMullin, an independent conservative candidate who is currently tied with Trump in Utah. It’s feasible McMullin could even win in that state, although it’s the only place where he has any significant name ID.
Why is this guy so popular in Utah but virtually nowhere else? Because most Mormons have consistently rejected Trump’s brand of Republicanism, but more importantly, McMullin is a Mormon. Mitt Romney, also Mormon, won a whopping 73 percent of the vote in Utah in 2012.
So Mormons like the idea of a fellow member of the flock becoming president. That’s understandable. Catholics were beside themselves with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. In 2008, black Americans were eager to see one of their own in the highest office in the land, and many women are enthusiastic about a President Hillary Clinton in this election.
Identity politics. It’s nothing new.
But what’s the point of McMullin even bothering to run? What’s his end game or rationale? He’s not going to be president. At least Johnson and Stein can claim that they are trying to make gains for their parties. Johnson and Stein can also say they are waging messaging wars through primarily educational campaigns to hopefully influence the general ideological drift of the country. They want voters to know what being a Libertarian or Green means.
That’s what Evan McMullin is doing too. He wants you to know what being a “conservative” means — and doesn’t mean.
And foreign policy is central.
“The people who drafted McMullin to be the ‘Never Trump’ independent candidate are some of the Republican establishment’s most well-known operatives: Bill Kristol, John Kingston, Joel Searby, Rick Wilson,” the Washington Post noted in August. “McMullin is an unknown congressional staffer who worked for the CIA, including 10 years undercover, and has no political experience whatsoever.”
Kristol is the most notable name on this list of McMullin backers. The editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard has continued to be a voice on the right for those who still believe the Iraq War was wise, that the U.S. doesn’t intervene nearly enough abroad and that the high point of the modern Republican Party was the George W. Bush administration.
This is the same Bill Kristol who helped launch Sarah Palin’s career, including her becoming the vice presidential half of the 2008 Republican ticket, because he thought she might inspire evangelicals and grassroots activists while also making headway with women voters that could help deliver a GOP victory.
When that proved to be a wrong calculation, neoconservatives still advised the exceptionally popular Palin, chief among them, Randy Scheunemann. Talking Points Memo reported in 2010, “Known for his early and vocal support for the Iraq War […] Scheunemann is now a paid foreign policy adviser to Palin.”
Republican hawks had their hooks in Palin from day one, with Kristol at the helm, at least in the beginning. A figure popular with conservative voters who could help cement hawkishness as the only acceptable view within the GOP? That’s what Kristol and his allies once saw in Palin.
But conservative Republicans like Congressman Ron Paul, his son Sen. Rand Paul and even newcomers like Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee began making a ruckus within the party, questioning the wisdom of unconstitutional wars and nation building. The tea party began to reject the Patriot Act and mass surveillance after Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013. When President Obama and Republican hawks wanted to bomb Syria that same year, it was conservative Republicans who led the charge against it. Palin even eventually followed the grassroots in questioning America’s interventions abroad and government spying on citizens.
This year, Republican nominee Trump constantly bashed George W. Bush for starting the Iraq War and then went on to win the South Carolina Republican primary — South Carolina was long considered “Bush Country,” one of the reddest and most pro-military states.
Obviously, it hasn’t been hawkish neoconservatives who have had the exclusive rights to define Republican foreign policy the last few years.
Which brings us back to Evan McMullin.
In most pieces endorsing McMullin from conservative pundits, the meat of their argument eventually boils down to this: Although Trump is dangerous or “isolationist,” Gary Johnson is not an acceptable alternative, because the former New Mexico governor’s libertarian approach to foreign policy is woefully inadequate (compared to that of someone who’s never held public office).
No, hawks don’t like Johnson’s non-interventionist foreign policy. They don’t even like the idea that Republican voters could tolerate the libertarian view on foreign affairs, even for a protest vote.
For hawks, the fact that Mormons reject Trump and embrace McMullin shows that there still exists a Republican constituency with an appetite for mindless war, even if most McMullin voters don’t consider foreign policy a primary reason for supporting that candidate. Most Sarah Palin supporters probably wouldn’t have picked foreign policy as their top priority either, but either way, she served for a time to keep that Bush-Cheney mindset popular with red meat conservatives.
Evan McMullin is basically sadder version of this sort of ideological maneuvering. His candidacy is all about influencing our larger politics moving forward — similar to Johnson or Stein’s efforts — even if it doesn’t pan out. As for panning out, as the New Republic’s Jeet Heer writes, “the Evan McMullin gambit shows that the #NeverTrump faction is little more than a desperate flailing rump within the Republican Party, one with little or no change of influencing the party’s future.”
If Donald Trump had the consistent foreign policy of hawks like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, there would be no McMullin in this race. If Gary Johnson were a pro-war fanatic instead of a libertarian, McMullin would not be in this race. If Hillary Clinton — the most ideologically hawkish candidate in 2016 — were a Republican, there would be no McMullin in this race. (It’s not surprising that the Democrat nominee is being supported by many of Kristol’s neoconservative friends openly.)
Similarly, if McMullin was not a hawk’s hawk, he would be useless to the people currently pushing him, and no one would have ever heard of him. Not even in Utah.
Most voters kind of know what Libertarians believe. That party has been around a long time. Most understand that the Green Party is a progressive alternative to the Democrats.
But what does “conservative” mean in 2016? That’s more of an open question than ever. Bill Kristol and his friends still want it to mean what it did in 2003.
Evan McMullin is their pathetic attempt to make sure that it does.
Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book “The Tea Party Goes to Washington.”