The Republican presidential campaign just changed. Until now this has been a candidate-centric process. All the different candidates were competing to get a majority of delegates to the GOP convention. But now it’s likely no candidate will get that majority on the first ballot.
So the campaign has become a delegate-centric process. Suddenly the delegates have all the power and the candidates have to woo them for their support. The crucial question is: How are delegates going to use their power?
Well, they could go the solitary path. In this model the delegates give away their support one by one. But they’d get nothing for it in return — except maybe a hug from Ivanka Trump or a Ted Cruz coffee mug. Big whoop.
Or they could choose the collective path.
This is the path that recognizes that the situation we’re in now is more like a parliamentary process than a presidential process. Even very small groups can have an amazing influence over big candidates who are trying to build a majority coalition. Think of the way small Israeli religious parties extract concessions from the much larger Israeli parties.
So I’m suggesting some number of delegates organize themselves into a caucus called the Lincoln Caucus. The Lincoln Caucus would not be an explicitly anti-Trump caucus or an anti-Cruz caucus. It would just be a caucus made up of delegates who are not happy with the choices currently before them.
The evidence suggests that there will be a lot of these delegates. Only 10 percent of the delegates are named by the presidential campaigns. The vast majority, still to be chosen, will be local activists or state legislators.
If they have a chance on a second or third ballot, many of them will love to vote against Donald Trump. By July, many of them, I suspect, will be less satisfied with Cruz than they are today — after he gets crushed in a bunch of big primaries and gets bloodied in the Trump-Cruz civil war.
I’m suggesting that the delegates who signed up to be members of the Lincoln Caucus make a pledge to work and vote together at the convention.
The first thing the Lincoln Caucus would do is plant a flag for a different style of Republicanism. Members of the caucus would remind the country that there still are Republicans who believe in prudent globalism, reform conservative ideas to lift up the working class. There are still Republicans who believe in certain standards of polite behavior in public and pragmatic compromise.
If the Republican ticket gets devastated in November, members of the Lincoln Caucus could say, “We stood for something different,” and they’d be in a good position to lead the rebuilding process.
But the Lincoln Caucus would primarily serve more immediate ends.
First, the Lincoln Caucus would work with the rules committee to get rid of any party bylaws that inhibit delegate flexibility at the convention. Second, it would tell the Trump and Cruz campaigns this: After the second ballot, we will entertain offers for our support. You may offer us policy pledges, personnel positions or anything you think will win our favor.
After the offers were in, members of the Lincoln Caucus would hold a public vote. They could vote for the Trump offer, for the Cruz offer or for some as yet unknown third candidate. If most of the Lincoln Caucus votes went for the third option, then that person would be the caucus candidate in the ensuing convention ballots.
This process would bring the Trump and Cruz campaigns back toward the Republican mainstream. It would create a road toward party unity after one deal or another was reached. It might go some way toward heading off a general election debacle.
It would also create a democratic path toward a Republican nominee who is not Trump or Cruz. Remember, the members of the caucus would be delegates, not Washington insiders. They would be a committeeman from Missouri or a state rep from Ohio. They’d be tied to the grass roots, and the press would be all over these people at the convention. This is the best way to get a non-Trump/Cruz candidate without sparking riots in the streets.
Mostly, members of the Lincoln Caucus would stand up for the legitimate rights of the party. In our republican system, it is parties that choose nominees; not primary voters. Parties are lasting institutions that manage coalitions, preserve historical commitments, protect us from flash-in-the-pan demagogues and impose restraints on the excessively ambitious. The Lincoln Caucus would embody these legitimate institutional responsibilities.
It’s impossible to tell where this process is heading. It would be nice to have a pre-organized faction, standing up for pragmatic, reform conservative ideas, ready for whatever may come.
If modern conservatives don’t stand together, they will surely hang separately.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.