“I think we have to go all out. I think this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part!” — Otter, from 1978’s “Animal House“
I confess that, for months now, I’ve thought a Republican primary challenge to President Trump would be “a really futile and stupid gesture,” of the type that the Delta House ringleader, exhorted his fraternity brothers to undertake after they’d been banished from campus.
Doesn’t every poll show that members of the Republican Party overwhelmingly support Trump? Didn’t the recent midterm elections show there is not much advantage in putting space between yourself and Trump if you want a future in the Republican Party? Well, yes and yes. But like Otter said, sometimes a situation “absolutely requires” a seemingly hopeless gesture. There are a bunch of reasons as to why I’ve come around to the view that Republicans need one of those gestures right about now.
A primary challenge to Trump would be quite helpful if the goal is to make certain he’s not reelected in 2020.
First, there is little downside to the effort. The worst that can happen is what is entirely expected — Trump would win. While there might be downside to the person challenging Trump, a primary opponent isn’t likely to take Trump on if he’s concerned about playing it safe and husbanding his or her popularity. The primary challenger, if you will, acts like the horse who jumps out to the lead, wears down the favorite and allows his stablemate to come from behind for the victory. And sometimes, the lead horse might actually win. Who’d do this? Maybe someone who already has a job (e.g., Mitt Romney, the Utah senator-elect), or doesn’t need one (e.g., a retired government official), or just thinks it’s the right thing to do (outgoing Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake?). Whoever it is, the person needs to be of sufficient stature to stand up to Trump and able to ridicule and provoke him.
Second, primaries against a sitting president are funny things. Eugene McCarthy didn’t beat President Lyndon B. Johnson in New Hampshire in 1968; he lost to Johnson by 6 points. But it was a moral victory that sent a collective shudder through the Democratic Party and the White House, prompting Robert F. Kennedy to enter the race and leading to Johnson’s withdrawal a few weeks later. Put differently, you never know what will happen in a dynamic race and what the prospect of losing may have on an unpopular, besieged incumbent president.
Third, this week has reminded us that Trump cannot handle the pressure of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III breathing down his neck, coupled with the prospect of congressional scrutiny. Imagine if Mueller indicts Donald Trump Jr. or proves that Trump aide Roger Stone was plotting with WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange. Think about what Trump will do in the event of a damning Mueller report. It’s not out of the question that he will “lose it” — really lose it — and do something that convinces even Republicans he cannot hold up for a campaign, let alone a second term. He might try pardoning everyone in sight and/or leave, demanding that Vice President Pence pardon them all. We’ll see what happens, as Trump likes to say.
Fourth, a primary run doesn’t preclude a third-party run by a different candidate, most likely a moderate candidate in the event Trump wins the GOP nomination. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, visiting in New Hampshire, explained the ideal circumstances for such a run. My colleague David Weigel writes, “Kasich was speculating on what it would take to break the two-party system wide open. He imagined a 2020 matchup between Trump and a left-wing Democrat that would create ‘a vast ocean between the parties.’ ” The decision to mount a third-party run could wait until after both parties pick their nominee; but if Trump falters in the primary, nothing would stop Kasich (or anyone else) from entering the race. (For now, Kasich occupies an enviable position. A non-candidate with high name ID can continue to criticize Trump and urge his fellow Republicans to hold Trump accountable for his rhetoric and actions.)
In short, those fearful of a second Trump term should welcome any and all chances to knock him out before the general election. If he, nevertheless, makes it to the general election, either a moderate Democrat or a third-party centrist would likely have the best chance of beating him.
You see, running against Trump in a primary may not be so futile or stupid after all.