The French Connection

The farcical quest for a conservative alternative to Donald Trump finds National Review’s David French, and produces a farcical reaction by the press.

Jim Young / Reuters

On Sunday, as the Libertarian Party was selecting Gary Johnson as its nominee, Bill Kristol—the Weekly Standard editor and anti-Trump leader, insofar as there is one—tweeted a vow:

This being Bill Kristol, there was deep skepticism that he’d actually deliver. (Mark Halperin warned Monday morning that if Kristol didn’t have a “fantastic” candidate, the tease was “not good (or cool).” Yet then a few hours later, there was Halperin, alongside his partner in crime John Heilemann, announcing a scoop on their Bloomberg TV show: Kristol’s candidate was David French.

At this point, most people paying attention—including most political reporters—asked in unison: Who?

Those who knew French’s name recognized him as a staff writer at National Review, the conservative magazine that ran a huge package of anti-Trump stories earlier this year. French is also a constitutional lawyer—just like the current White House resident—who served in Iraq as an Army reservist. (He is also, so far as I can tell, the magazine’s designated respondent to Atlantic articles.)

There’s little evidence that French is excited about the prospect of running for president, bringing to mind the old adage that anyone willing to run for the presidency can’t be trusted with the job. He wouldn’t comment to Bloomberg, and other reporters who’d been chasing him down said they’d gotten similar responses. Rosie Gray said she heard he was talking to potential donors and staff.

It takes nothing away from French’s character or resume to suggest that he’s not the big fish that the anti-Trump forces had hoped to land. Among the other names mentioned was Mitt Romney, a man who ran for the Republican nomination twice and won it once. Heilemann and Halperin reported that “the search has focused on individuals who have one or more of the following three traits seen as vital for credibly launching such a bid: fame, vast wealth, and elective experience.” French meets none of those criteria.

French may be “impressive,” as Kristol says, but he does not stand “a real chance.” Those who argue that in a year of Trump, anyone stands a chance are overlooking some essential truths about Trump’s name recognition and obvious charisma. French has never run for office. It would be almost impossible for him to get on ballots. He has no cabinet of advisers. He doesn’t know donors. He holds a variety of views that would both guarantee that many Trump voters would reject him while also ensuring that he wouldn’t peel away Democrats and left-leaning independents from Hillary Clinton. Magazine writers are granted the privilege of holding certain views that would make them implausible candidates for office, but that means that, well, they’re implausible candidates for office.

Anyone harping too much on that fact is missing the forest for the trees: Electability is beside the point. No one—not even Bill Kristol, or perhaps especially not Bill Kristol—thinks French could win an election. The point of the anti-Trump drive is to give people who cannot bring themselves to vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Gary Johnson (or, heaven forfend, Jill Stein), someone to vote for rather than abstaining in November. Don’t blame me, I voted for French.

Based on initial reactions, French’s core support would come mostly from the ranks of conservative magazine journalists. At the heart of much partisan political writing is a fantasy—“If I were in charge of the government, let me tell you...”—and putting forth one of their own is a way to vicariously enact that fantasy. Some of French’s peers were chagrined at the way that reporters (and civilians) immediately began rifling through what they could find of French’s life as soon as the announcement came down. Of course, this is what one signs up for when one signs up to run for president, as an enraged Trump realized during a press conference Tuesday morning. Successful candidates for president are generally those with a meticulously curated past (Barack Obama), those whose past has already been thoroughly rifled through (Hillary Clinton), or those with no shame (Trump). It’s hard to understand why Kristol, rather than expose an apparent friend to this barrage of abuse, didn’t just put himself forward.

If the French affair serves any purpose—besides giving conservative commentators a chance to vote their conscience, and probably making French’s life miserable for a few days (or a few months, if he goes forward)—it is to expose the silliness of some parts of the political press. Perpetually desirous of novelty, always spoiling for a fight, and having fervently prayed for a Clinton-Trump-Romney contest, they were not about to let this moment get away, as disappointing as the French revelation might seem. Having announced the potential (not confirmed) candidacy of a complete unknown, Halperin immediately set about spinning how French might be a pretty good candidate. What was he basing this on? Certainly not French’s record of running for office. “This guy, based on our looking him up this afternoon, you could be proud to vote for him,” Halperin said, suggesting that mostly he’d run a few Google searches.

A couple segments later, the Bloomberg hosts referred to “the David French news, rocking the political world”—how could they know? They’d been on air the whole time—and somehow dragooned the veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum into gamely analyzing French’s chances in a national race. (Not great, in case you were wondering.) But what could be more fun than the press dissecting a theoretical presidential run by a member of the press, created out of whole cloth by another member of the press?