Former RNC head says Trump will face 2020 primary challenger, and that Biden is the Democrat to beat

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. (Photo: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

WASHINGTON — “Oh dude,” Michael Steele jokingly groans. “Seriously?”

The question that has the former chairman of the Republican National Committee gently perturbed is one that, within months, will come to dominate the national conversation: Who is going to be the next president of the United States?

And so, much as he says he doesn’t want to, Steele supplies an answer. “If the election for the presidency is held today, Donald Trump wins,” he says.

Steele has a vantage point that few others have, one that allows him to survey the forces aligning for and against Trump. Though the former leader of the Republican Party, which he led for much of the Obama presidency, is now an MSNBC contributor, often sharing airtime — and opinions — with verified members of the anti-Trump resistance.

Steele believes that Trump will have a “robust challenge” in the Republican primary. And that, Steele says, is as it should be. “For a party that’s always stood for the principle of freedom, it’s amazing how quickly we want to go into lockdown when it comes to Donald Trump.” Should such a challenge take place, it will be the first serious one to a sitting president since Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., tried to wrest the nomination from President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Steele is close to Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, who recently became the first Republican in more than a half-century to win reelection in that state, easily defeating his Democratic opponent, former NAACP head Ben Jealous. “What Larry Hogan has done in Maryland is an example of how bipartisanship used to work —and how bipartisanship can work in the future,” Steele says. That’s an increasingly popular assessment of the Maryland governor; recent reports indicate that Hogan may well decide to challenge Trump. (Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld has also announced that he will run in the primary against Trump, but he is not widely regarded as an electoral threat.)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan speaks at an election night party, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)

Has Steele broached the topic with Hogan? He good-naturedly deflects the question — “I will not share with you my conversations with the governor” — while making it pretty clear that he and Hogan have discussed what it would take to make the journey from Annapolis to Washington. In what is nothing if not a tell, Steele calls a potential Hogan challenge to Trump a “gift to the American people.”

For now, the American people will have to do with more than a dozen Democratic candidates, whom Steele sees as moving too far left for a nation that, he maintains, is “center-right” at its ideological core. That could leave the independent voter stranded come the general election, uncomfortable with both Trump and a Democratic opponent who has adopted the agenda of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the fiery new leader of young congressional progressives.

“If you’re swinging away from Trump into a far left, progressive agenda — free health care, free education, environmental penalties — who pays for all that?” Steele wonders. He points to the plight of Andrew Gillum, who lost in November in the Florida gubernatorial race after being branded a “failed socialist mayor” in a tweet by President Trump. Similar messaging has already made its way into the president’s preparations for the 2020 campaign. Conflating the crisis in socialist Venezuela with the Green New Deal, an Ocasio-Cortez brainchild, may not exactly be fair, but it may prove brutally effective.

That’s why Steele is especially bullish on Amy Klobuchar, the senior senator from Minnesota, who is building her candidacy on an appeal to moderate Republicans from the Midwest, many of whom have voted for her in past senatorial races. A cautious legislator, she has resisted the leftward pull of the Democratic base, casting herself as a pragmatist in an age of ideologues.

Klobuchar is “starting to create some elbow room with the folks who are all kind of huddled in one corner on this progressive, far-left agenda on the economy, jobs, health care,” Steele says, contrasting her with liberal firebrands like Kamala Harris of California and Corey Booker of New Jersey. “What Kamala is selling works on the West Coast, what Corey is selling works on the East Coast,” says Steele. “What she’s selling works where you can win.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a 2020 presidential candidate, makes a campaign stop in Albia, Iowa, Feb. 17, 2019. (Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

He points to a CNN town hall held earlier this week, in which Klobuchar said she did not support free tuition at public colleges or significantly expanded public health care. While some see these positions as misreadings of an increasing left-leaning Democratic base, Steele sees something else, something admirable at work.

“She’s being honest,” he says. “And what was the response in the room, in Iowa? Applause.”

Steele praises Klobuchar’s snowy entry into the presidential race as one of the two best roll-outs in the Democratic primary so far. The other was the rally Harris held in her native Oakland, where she was rapturously received by a crowd of 20,000. The “sheer panorama” of the crowd was “Obama-esque,” Steele says, though he believes she spoiled the party by, days later, vowing to eliminate private health coverage. The vow was quickly retracted.

In the meantime, Sen. Bernie Sanders has already collected $6 million in campaign contributions, having announced his presidential run earlier this week on Vermont Public Radio. The polls have been favorable to Sanders, too, but not so favorable as to intimidate any of his rivals, for whom the next several months are an opportunity to raise both profiles and funds.

“There is no front-runner, in my view, in the Democratic primary,” Steele says. One potential front-runner he does have in mind is not yet running: former Vice President Joe Biden. “He is everyman,” Steele says enthusiastically. “He’s a guy who goes to a fish fry and is as comfortable talking to folks with greasy fingers as he is sipping tea at a tea soirée."

Former Vice President Joe Biden. (Photo: Alexandra Beier/Getty Images)

Biden is older than Trump, and just a shade younger than Sanders, but Steele dismisses any age-related concerns about fitness for office. “As much as Democrats chastise the rest of us because of our other isms,” he says, “they seem to be perfectly OK with ageism.” He points to the crowds of college students who packed Sanders rallies during the 2016 primary as evidence that any hand-wringing over graying hairs is merely the domain of pundits and consultants.

Nor does Steele think that Biden’s long history as a U.S. senator from Delaware poses a potential minefield of questionable decisions about his opposition to school desegregation and, later, lack of support for Anita Hill, who accused then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her former boss, of sexual misconduct. Biden has apologized for his role in the Thomas hearings.

“We’ve litigated that,” Steele says of the Thomas hearings. “Go out and poll and ask people about Anita Hill and Joe Biden. and let me know what you get. I’m gonna tell you what you’re gonna get: nothing.”

But much like Hogan, Biden hasn’t declared yet, though he is reportedly close to a decision. So that leaves Democrats with a largely unsettled field, one in which everyone has something to offer, but nobody has shown an ability to dominate. And much as he likes Klobuchar, Steele also praises Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “Her message on the ground has been strong, it’s been consistent, and she has weathered the ‘Pocahontas’ controversy,” he said, a reference to the debate over whether she inaccurately represented the extent of her Native American background.

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Photo: John Locher/AP)

He also says that Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., an early supporter of the #MeToo movement, has been smart to position herself as the feminist candidate. “Carve out your space, baby, carve your space,” he advises her and every other candidate who needs both a loyal following and an ecumenical appeal that can counter Trump’s.

And if the political veteran is certain of anything, it is only of this: that Hillary Clinton will not run for president again. “You were the second least popular person running for president in 2016,” he says of Clinton. “In this field, what do you think you would be, if you’re Hillary Clinton?”

Above all, Steele hopes that people won’t select candidates who “blather bullshit,” who choose celebrity over integrity, who make promises they cannot keep. Even in 2019, he doesn’t think that is too much to ask.

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