Thus far, this very early onset of 2020 caucus-mania has focused on the two-dozen-plus Democrats who are running or considering a run for President. If all the coverage feels lopsided, that’s for a reason: Democrats have a wide-open field, whereas President Donald Trump is expected to cruise to the Republican nomination.
But what if our expectations are wrong? I doubt it. But as potential challengers nonetheless emerge to toy with the idea of retaking the party from Trump, we might as well examine the reasons why resistance may not be entirely futile in the 2020 Republican Caucus.
As I’ve been saying, it’s Trump’s party now.
As I noted yesterday, I survived the media circus that was the 2016 election cycle. I witnessed how then-candidate Donald Trump proceeded to take over the Republican Party. Trump has only strengthened his grip over the GOP since then. Even as Trump continues to repel Democratic voters, and even though Trump continues to struggle among independents, his overall approval and favorability numbers tend to remain within a tight range thanks to his rock-solid Republican fan base.
There’s a reason why Robert Mueller, a long-time federal law enforcement fixture who’s worked for prior Republican administrations, is now so unpopular among Republican voters. There’s a reason why Alva Johnson, the latest woman to come forward and share her story of how Trump forcibly kissed her in August 2016, barely registers in GOP chatter circles. And yes, there’s a reason why policies and actions that Republican leaders used to rail against have since become popular with “the base”. Even after losing the U.S. House and few state houses in last fall’s “Blue Wave” of a midterm, Republicans have nonetheless determined that their party faithful will accept nothing less than complete faith and trust in Trump.
And yet, despite all this, there’s still a stalwart “Never Trump” conservative movement. The irony here is that four years ago, Trump ran as the “anti-establishment outsider” against some of these very figures who were then considered part of the right-wing “establishment”. But now, the tables have turned as the “Never Trumpers” claim the “anti-establishment outsider” mantle against Trump and the GOP “establishment” who rally around him.
And yet, someone’s crashing the party. Might there be more?
While Trump maintains sky-high approval among fellow Republicans, his overall approval remains on shaky ground. Mueller and the Trump-Russia investigation aren’t going away any time soon. “The Wall” will probably not be finished any time soon. And absent any substantial change in the Trump administration’s behavior, Trump’s own struggle to grow support beyond the GOP base probably won’t subside any time soon. Considering all this, isn’t this the right time and place for “the right Republican” to challenge Trump and prevent another embarrassing election defeat?
Enter… Bill Weld? He may have wowed the Republican Party with his election as Governor of “true blue” Massachusetts in 1990 and reelection in 1994, but the party has changed dramatically over the last 25 years. If anything, Weld himself signaled that less than three years ago as he switched his allegiance to the Libertarian Party and became Gary Johnson’s running mate. Weld may be identifying as a Republican again, but does the party identify at all with his “libertarian-ish moderate” approach to governing?
This might explain why more conservative “Never Trumpers” are still shopping around for other contenders. Might newly elected U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) be up for running for President again? Might Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) jump in? Hogan hasn’t completely shut the door just yet, but Romney is barely keeping the door cracked open as other prominent Republicans who were seen as potential Trump challengers, such as former Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, have already slammed it shut.
So really, what’s the point?
Trumpism corrupts. https://t.co/d8fZkUecvT
— Jim Swift (@JimSwiftDC) February 26, 2019
So we’re basically back where we began: Trump may be so unpopular among the general electorate that he’s far from guaranteed to win a second term, but he’s so popular among likely Republican caucus-goers that he’s a near-lock to win the nomination all over again. So what’s the point of any of this?
Here goes: While Trump has the Republican Party in his pocket, there are still those in the party and in the larger conservative movement whose conservatism does not consist of white nationalism, autocratic impulses, or brazen corruption. Do they just allow themselves to be assimilated into “The Borg” of Trumpism, Star Trek style, as the GOP establishment has done? Do they just leave the party in total disgust, as other 2016 “Never Trump” stalwarts have done? Or do they stay and fight to win back the heart and soul of the party in hopes that a calamitous end to Trump’s political career will drive the party back into their arms?
Bill Weld may at best be considered a long-shot to wrest the Republican nomination from Trump, and other potential challengers face similarly long odds. But if they don’t at least try, we may never know whether the Republican Party will ever divorce itself from Trumpism in the future. While this is at surface value a fight over the 2020 presidential nomination, this caucus/primary fight may really be more about the fight for the future of conservatism and the GOP.