Conservatives are asking themselves if they should support a third-party conservative nominee if, as looks increasingly likely, Donald Trump ends up clinching the nomination. The short answer is yes. The longer answer is hell yes.
The first reason is honor. Donald Trump, in many ways, stands for everything that conservatives oppose. As Reihan Salam perfectly summarized, "While conservatives have traditionally emphasized the central importance of limited government, Trump has built his campaign around the promise of an unlimited government that will solve every problem that ails America, provided it is fully under his command." Once Trump has hijacked the movement and the party, it simply cannot let him get away with it. And conservatives have to redeem themselves, because they share some responsibility for the mess they've gotten themselves into.
The second reason is that if Trump is the nominee, his inevitable defeat will only be the first step of an inevitable long war for the soul of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Other politicians will try to replicate his Le Pen-like appeal. Donors will say the problem is the GOP didn't pass immigration reform. And so on.
Campaigns, especially quixotic campaigns, forge armies. They create battle scars, and they create camaraderie and esprit-de-corps. They leave behind infrastructure, email lists, and donor lists. And this anti-Trump campaign will self-select for conservatives who have more honor than careerism, and will therefore attract exactly the people who should be the heart and soul of a new Republican Party.
The third reason is that conservatives simply can't let the American people equate Donald Trump with conservatism, which would be inevitable if Trump became the nominee and the GOP rallied behind him (except for those whose opposition would only be silent). It has to take a stand for what it believes and show that Trumpism is not it.
Many conservatives already feel this way. And they are casting their lonely eyes toward a savior, Rick Perry.
I have tremendous respect and admiration for Rick Perry. This story and this story show him to be a man of Christian character and principle. He's a real conservative (mostly). He has one of the best governing records in the country. And he's got a favorite son advantage in one of the biggest states in the Union.
There are a couple of problems, though. One is that he did run for the primary and "sore loser" laws in many states might prohibit him from being on the ballot.
But the main one is that there's a better candidate: Nikki Haley.
The South Carolina governor is also a conservative, with a conservative record. She has also distinguished herself by principled opposition to Trump. She is phenomenally popular in her state.
And, Haley embodies precisely the argument that conservatives need to make in the wake of Trump: that conservatism is not, need not be, a vehicle for white identity politics. Not just because she's Indian-American, but also because she is the governor who, in a historic gesture in the wake of the deadly shooting at a Charleston church, removed the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds. And she did it while still enjoying an over 80 percent approval rating among Republican voters. Especially in a three-way race with Hillary Clinton, this narrative is exactly what conservatives need to tell the country. Meanwhile, sadly, Rick Perry embodies conservative clichés that aren't great: the drawling, macho male.
It's not just about clichés, though. For all his qualities and all his successes in his home state, Rick Perry hasn't exactly been a stellar campaigner at a national level. Yes, maybe he was recovering from back surgery in 2012 and maybe nobody could withstand the Trump tsunami in 2016, but his record is what it is. Meanwhile, Haley is a fresh figure and an outstanding communicator.
If conservatives should draft someone to be their standard-bearer this cycle, it should be Nikki Haley.