Pri­mary Trump in 2020

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY STEPHEN F. HAYES Stephen F. Hayes is the for­mer ed­i­tor in chief of the Weekly Stan­dard.

El­iz­abeth War­ren was just in Iowa. Cory Booker’s been hang­ing out in New Hamp­shire. Julián Cas­tro is giv­ing in­ter­views to any­one who asks. Beto O’Rourke is plan­ning a meet-thevot­ers road trip. Bernie San­ders is do­ing da­m­age con­trol. And Joe Bi­den is pub­licly won­der­ing whether Democrats need an elder states­man with the qual­i­fi­ca­tions and ex­pe­ri­ence of, say, some­one like Joseph R. Bi­den Jr. to carry the party to vic­tory in 2020.

On the Repub­li­can side of the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, how­ever, it’s rel­a­tively tran­quil. Sure, there’s John Ka­sich’s vol­u­ble con­sul­tants try­ing to en­cour­age a Draft Ka­sich move­ment for the two-time also-ran who has lately been aban­don­ing many of his con­ser­va­tive po­si­tions in fa­vor of oat­meal cen­trism that might have broader ap­peal. Nikki Ha­ley’s res­ig­na­tion as United Na­tions am­bas­sador gen­er­ated sev­eral hours of spec­u­la­tion be­fore she promised she’d ea­gerly cam­paign for Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­elec­tion. A strong anti-Trump op-ed re­cently in The Post by Mitt Rom­ney read like some­thing of a try­out for the Leader of the Op­po­si­tion. But the 2020 spec­u­la­tion it stoked died down quickly af­ter Rom­ney told CNN’s Jake Tap­per, “I’m not running again.”

In some re­spects, the quiet among Repub­li­cans isn’t sur­pris­ing. The in­cum­bent pres­i­dent is a Repub­li­can. Se­ri­ous in­tra­party chal­lenges at the pres­i­den­tial level are rel­a­tively rare and never suc­cess­ful.

But the Repub­li­can pres­i­dent is Don­ald Trump. If ever there were a time for a se­ri­ous in­tra­party chal­lenge, it’s now. He has strong sup­port from el­e­ments of the Repub­li­can base, but he has alien­ated vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one else, es­pe­cially those seg­ments of the elec­torate that are grow­ing the fastest. The ideal chal­lenger would be a com­mit­ted, ar­tic­u­late con­ser­va­tive — maybe a gov­er­nor, such as Mary­land’s Larry Ho­gan, or a se­na­tor, such as Ne­braska’s Ben Sasse — who would make a case for lim­ited gov­ern­ment that will oth­er­wise go un­made, and who would show vot­ers that con­ser­vatism and Trump­ism are not one and the same.

The 2018 midterm elec­tions were a clear and un­mis­tak­able re­buke of the chaos of his first two years as pres­i­dent. And it’s get­ting worse. The fi­nal few weeks of this sec­ond year of his pres­i­dency are prov­ing even more chaotic than the first hun­dred weeks.

Trump’s steady stream of lies has picked up over the past six months. His Twit­ter feed is more un­hinged. His sud­den Syria with­drawal an­nounce­ment on Dec. 19 sur­prised ev­ery­one from al­lies to the mil­i­tary leaders who would be tasked with car­ry­ing out his or­der. His re­cent un­prompted de­fense of the 1979 Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan was enough to make even paid Putin apol­o­gists blush. As special coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation draws closer to the Oval Of­fice, it is clearer ev­ery day why Trump fired At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions for fail­ing to pro­tect him from the in­quiry.

Now, Trump is threat­en­ing to de­clare a “na­tional emer­gency” and use “the mil­i­tary ver­sion of em­i­nent do­main” to se­cure the south­ern bor­der — a stark ad­mis­sion that he has failed on his cen­tral cam­paign prom­ise: to build a wall and make Mex­ico pay for it.

There’s rea­son to be­lieve this will all get worse over the next year. The Mueller investigation is test­ing what­ever san­ity Trump still pos­sesses. Democrats con­trol­ling the House will use their new­found power to in­ves­ti­gate ev­ery cor­ner of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion — an ad­min­is­tra­tion al­ready marked by malfea­sance and cor­rup­tion. Two of the men cred­ited with con­strain­ing Trump’s most de­struc­tive im­pulses over the first two years — De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly — have left the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Perhaps most omi­nous for Trump’s po­lit­i­cal for­tunes, a grow­ing num­ber of econ­o­mists are pre­dict­ing a slow­down of the U.S. econ­omy — threat­en­ing the one is­sue where wins Trump pos­i­tive num­bers.

The “Trump Tracker” from Morn­ing Con­sult found that Trump’s net ap­proval rat­ing fell in 43 states in De­cem­ber. Na­tion­ally, his ap­proval rat­ing is stuck in the high 30s or low 40s, depend­ing on the poll. By a mar­gin of about 20 points, more Amer­i­cans be­lieve the coun­try is headed in the wrong di­rec­tion than on the right track. An NBC poll from De­cem­ber found that 38 per­cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers say they will def­i­nitely (23) or prob­a­bly (15) vote for Trump if he runs for re­elec­tion, while 52 per­cent say they will prob­a­bly (13) or def­i­nitely (39) vote for the Demo­crat in the gen­eral elec­tion.

Trump’s con­ser­va­tive sup­port­ers point to his ac­com­plish­ments — tax re­form, progress in the fight against the Is­lamic State, two Supreme Court jus­tices, dereg­u­la­tion — and claim that they make the chaos and crazy worth it. A pri­mary chal­lenge could badly da­m­age Trump’s gen­eral-elec­tion prospects and help elect a Demo­crat, they ar­gue, and, in any case, ev­ery­one knows pri­mary chal­lenges never suc­ceed.

Would a pri­mary chal­lenge re­ally do more da­m­age to Trump’s re­elec­tion ef­fort than Trump has done him­self? It’s hard to see how. And as Trump sup­port­ers should un­der­stand bet­ter than most, the volatil­ity of the current po­lit­i­cal mo­ment means that things “ev­ery­one knows” can­not happen some­times do. For the good of the coun­try, some­times it’s vi­tal that they do.

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