Someone serious needs to step up and primary Trump

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
President Trump and (from left) Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images)

I won’t spend a lot of time this week talking about President Trump’s attack on four nonwhite women in Congress. Plenty’s been said about that already, and the more we in the media hyperventilate over stuff like this, the happier Trump is.

The simple fact is that Trump doesn’t know what makes someone American, literally or philosophically. That’s an odd thing to say about a president, but it’s where we are.

I’m also not going to get into the irony of the far left screaming about race baiting, barely a week after the most prominent of the four congresswomen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, basically called Nancy Pelosi a racist, and after her chief of staff likened Democrats who disagreed with her to segregationists. The moral high ground can be slippery terrain.

And I’m not going to bother rehashing my long-standing disgust with Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, and with all the carefully calibrating moderates in the party, who would sooner abandon any pretense of principle than risk a revolt. History will judge them pathetic.

Instead, I’m just going to make the case for what needs to happen next if the Republican Party is going to rediscover a semblance of its better self.

Somebody serious needs to step up and primary this president.

Back in 2017, I wrote that I thought a primary was pretty much inevitable in the next election, given Trump’s historically low approval ratings and tragically deficient character. That we’re still waiting for a heavyweight challenger — while a few of those who considered a run, like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, have passed — hasn’t really changed my mind.

To this point, though, the only guy to step forward is Bill Weld, the 73-year-old former Massachusetts governor, who was once a star in the national party, but who most recently ran as the vice presidential pick on the Libertarian ticket.

I always admired Weld’s independence, but, realistically, he’s not going to give Trump anything like the challenge a more committed and current Republican can.

More intriguing is Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina congressman and governor, who said this week he’s looking at running a primary based on fiscal responsibility. Sanford, like Weld, is something of a strange dude (here’s a column I wrote about him in 2014), but that clearly doesn’t disqualify you with Republican voters.

To my mind, the best candidate out there — aside from Nikki Haley, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, who seems to have decided to play a longer game — remains John Kasich, the former Ohio governor, who hung in the longest against Trump in 2016.

Among Republican leaders, Kasich issued the first and strongest condemnation of Trump’s xenophobic tweets. He’s left the door more than slightly ajar to both a primary and an independent run, but his hang-up with both seems to be that he doesn’t see a path toward actually winning. He may well be right.

But where a primary challenge is concerned, at least, I’d argue that the odds of winning are no longer so relevant. There are a bunch of other reasons that a Kasich or a Sanford should run, and I’ll lay them out for you.

You’ll weaken Trump. Let’s put this in some historical perspective. Between 1976 and 1992, three sitting presidents endured hard-fought primaries in their bids for a second term. All of them managed to hold on to the nomination but went on to lose the general election. (My colleague Jon Ward recently wrote an excellent book on one of these races, the war between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy in 1980.)

Which is probably the main reason we’ve not seen a real challenge to any incumbent in the last 27 years. It’s reasonable to assume that primaries had a lot to do with those losses, and nobody wants to be blamed for losing the White House.

Throw that out the window, because Trump needs to be stopped. He does pretty much nothing to advance the cause of traditional Republicans. What he does do, very ably, is debase our politics, unsettle our allies and transform the seat of our government into a family subsidiary, run by his dilettante kids.

Worried about your party? If Trump wins reelection and continues on his course of making the Republican Party the sole purview of resentful white guys, Republicans may not see another majority in this country before extraterrestrial life forms get the right to vote.

If, on the other hand, the Democratic candidate wins, chances are better than average that the next president will so misread the mandate and overcorrect course that Republicans will quickly recover and the whole thing will be up for grabs again by 2022.

There are rare times when rebuilding the country means burning down your party — and when burning down your party is the only way to save it.

America needs actual conservatives. And if you haven’t noticed, they’re in danger of disappearing.

Trump is anti-free trade, anti-immigration, anti-NATO, anti-global leadership, anti-fiscal restraint, anti-conservation, anti-science, anti-military chiefs and anti-intelligence agencies. He’s pro-Russia and pro-repression. He uses the White House to enrich his businesses and the National Mall for political rallies.

Other than that, he’s basically Teddy Roosevelt.

About the only conservative things Trump’s done is to sign a tax-cutting bill that crossed his desk and name a couple of Supreme Court justices. That’s a pretty low bar.

The country is better off when it has a principled, enlightened alternative to modern liberalism, with its illiberal policing of language and its unflagging faith in expansive government. Somebody needs to articulate that alternative, before real conservatism becomes a unit in ninth grade history.

You just never know. OK, at least seven in 10 Republicans approve of Trump, whatever that really means. That’s marginally impressive.

Except that we don’t know what those voters would do when faced with an actual choice — not between Trump and Democrats, or Trump and the media, but between Trump and a thoughtful conservative who doesn’t tweet insults in the middle of the night.

We don’t know how Trump would fare with Republicans in a field of two (or three), rather than in a field of 17, where all the more established candidates fractured their vote into tiny shards last time around.

We don’t know what Trump is going to say or do in the intervening months, or on the eve of the primaries, that could tip the balance very quickly toward a Republican alternative.

And we don’t know yet where independent voters are going, especially in New Hampshire, where they make up the largest bloc and can vote in primaries. In 2000, John McCain beat out Bill Bradley, a Democrat, for most of those votes, transforming him into a genuine threat to George W. Bush.

I don’t see a lot of viable Democrats who would be a natural fit for New Hampshire’s libertarian-leaning electorate. But a serious Republican challenger has a decent shot to do better there than anyone expects.

Do I think Kasich would ultimately make a competitive race of a 2020 rematch with Trump? I don’t rule it out. The odds are worth the risk of abject failure.

But like I said, that’s beside the point. Because the risk of Trump cruising to the nomination and beating another underwhelming Democrat — without so much as a defense of rational conservatism — is one no serious Republican should be willing to take.


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