How a Competitive Primary Could Undermine Anti-Trump Conservatives
There is going to be a battle for the future of the Republican Party and over the legacy of President Trump. The only question is when that fight will begin in earnest.
There are two sets of conflicting polling data on this question. One says that Trump about 9 in 10 Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance as president, 88% according to Gallup. The other is a February poll that says 43% of Republicans want to see a primary challenger. How does one reconcile these seemingly opposite conclusions?
One is to dismiss a primary challenge as irrelevant and no big deal, after all a convicted felon got over 40% of the vote in the 2012 West Virginia Democratic primary and Obama went on to win re-election rather easily. Obama also failed to crack 60% in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. A more accurate interpretation would say that it is easier to support Trump when Democratic candidates are announcing their support for new government programs that costs tens of trillions of dollars and while Ilhan Omar is repeating one anti-Semitic sentiment after another, Mitch McConnell is confirming judges to lifetime appointments. It is much more difficult to support Trump when he is the one questioning the loyalty of Jewish-Americans or when he’s needlessly creating an international incident with Denmark. In either case, just as in certain 2012 Democratic primaries, a vote against Trump in 2020 will be a protest vote rather than a vote for somebody else.
So, some ask, if an intra-Republican fight over Trump and Trumpism is inevitable, why postpone the process any longer than needed? Why not run a competent primary challenger?
Because there is no situation in which Trump does not win in 2020. Therefore, nobody who wants to be taken seriously is going to commit political suicide by running in 2020. The greatest way to doom your 2024 campaign will be to be seen as the one who challenged the incumbent president, who unlike Gerald Ford in 1976 when he was challenged by Ronald Reagan, was actually elected in his own right. Thus, the 2020 Republican Primary is for the unserious candidate.
Former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld was the first to announce his intention to challenge Trump in 2020. Weld is a liberal. You, as a conservative, cannot make the case that Donald Trump is not a conservative and then insist the Republican nominee be someone who compares pro-lifers to theocrats or calls the AR-15 a weapon of mass destruction.
Perhaps aware of the fact that Weld’s candidacy is rightfully viewed by many as a joke, some are trying to search for another candidate. After failing to recruit David French of National Review in 2016, only to deliver the snake oil-selling Evan McMullin, Bill Kristol is now trying to convince former Rep. Joe Walsh to throw his hat into the 2020 ring. The problem for Kristol is that Walsh represents everything he claims to hate. Walsh’s flip from provocateur to voice of reason just reeks of opportunism. By endorsing a man who said that Obama was a Muslim, a “pussy,” and a “traitor,” it is not unfair to say that Kristol and people like him are more offended by the electorate rejecting their establishment sympathies and “Change All The Regimes!” foreign policy than they are about “locker room talk.”
As for Mark Sanford, let’s just say, the former Governor of South Carolina has his own personal baggage.
Trump is going to be the Republican nominee in 2020. If Trump loses in November 2020, there will be an effort to say that it was the fault of those who sought to replace him in the primary. Fair or not, there will be cries of “It’s because of you, that we have President Biden.” Those who seek to move the Republican Party away from Trumpism will therefore suffer as a result and for what?
There are plenty of conservatives who wish Donald Trump would nuke his Twitter account and just shut up, but also don’t approve of Kristol’s new website hiring liberals to go make fun of pro-lifers at CPAC. In fact, they might even hold people like him responsible Trump’s raise. It is a mistake to say there are two factions of the Republican Party: the pro-Trump and the anti-Trump. There are three: The Trump-lovers, Trump-haters, and those somewhere in-between who may fall one way or another when it comes time to vote for Trump or abstain from voting, but who nonetheless have serious problems with both MAGA and, for lack of a better term, the Bulwark-ers. These people, especially after the McMullin debacle, are going to much more careful about any protest vote they may cast.
It is a fair criticism to say that the Republican President of the United States appears to be better friends with the mass-murdering dictator of North Korea than the Prime Minster of Denmark. It is also a fair criticism to say that the two main names so far mentioned as potentially serious primary challengers (Walsh and Weld) are either self-centered buffoons or were never all that conservative to begin with.
A serious problem requires a serious solution. Bill Weld and Joe Walsh are not serious solutions and their candidacies make opposition to Trumpism look petty, vindictive, unserious, and not all that conservative and that is going to be a problem in a post-Trump Republican Party. The real battle for the Republican Party will begin in 2021, if Trump loses, or if he wins, when the 2024 Republican Primary gets up and going with serious candidates. Conservatives do not need to charge into what Alfred Tennyson called the “Valley of Death” just to make them feel better about themselves.