The Republican Party has cornered itself. After Donald Trump’s stunning 2016 win, Republicans have lost and lost and lost. They lost the House, then the Presidency, and the Senate. In Biden’s first midterm they expected to get the Congress back but again lost the Senate and gained only an unwieldy House majority presided over by a neutered Speaker. They’ve lost governorships and statehouses as well.
The 2024 Presidential race has numerous GOP candidates, but no real contenders. Republicans have seen time and time again they don’t win with Trump, but they are going to nominate him a third time nonetheless. The other candidates can't beat him.
Last month, a jury found that Donald Trump sexually assaulted E. Jean Carroll and then defamed her by deliberately lying about it. The month before, he was indicted for campaign finance fraud. This month, a federal grand jury indicted Trump on numerous felonies.
Amidst this avalanche of what other campaigns would consider “bad news,” Trump’s stranglehold on the GOP base grew.
Trump’s opponents for the nomination have to be shaking their heads about why they can’t gain any ground, but their strategies are not so much bad, as hopeless. All of them have been criticized publicly and advised privately by smart people about how to win this campaign, and all of them are going nowhere.
The hard truth for the GOP is that no winning strategy has to exist, and none does. Things Republican candidates are willing to do will not work. Things that might work, they can’t do. As long as Trump is alive and eligible, he will trounce this field.
The most pressing day-to-day problem for the likes of Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Doug Bergum, Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, Vivek Ramaswamy, and even Ron Desantis, is that relatively few Republicans care about them, even among those who know who they are. Meanwhile, Trump’s previous campaigns, his Presidency, and his criminal and civil cases make him the central point of conflict between the GOP, and President Biden and Democrats in general. There is virtually nothing those contenders can do to get near the headlines at all, while Trump’s cases play out, much into them in a way that might convince GOP primary voters to give up Trump.
Desantis has sought notoriety with aggressive legislation targeting minorities and books, publicity stunts like flying migrants to blue states under false pretenses, and appeals to racism such as declaring his intention to rename US military bases for slave-owning confederate generals. His brand is red meat for the base, but the portions are just too small.
As the second-place candidate so far, Desantis had the most to gain from Trump’s indictment, but his reaction showed the catch-22 he and all his fellow challengers face. Because Trump’s indictment marks the central point of conflict between right and left, Desantis decided he should attack the DOJ and defend Trump. These are the actions of a lackey, not an opponent.
Nikki Haley reacted the same way when asked to respond to the finding of sexual assault against Trump. A gift-wrapped moment to show that she could take him on, and that his intolerable conduct disqualified him from leadership and what did she do? She muttered that Trump would appeal. A profile in courage.
Chris Christie has promised to take Trump head-on and attack vigorously, calling Trump names and trying to bully the ex-President in Trumpian style. He’s avoided the weak appearance of Haley and Desantis, but he has nothing to show for his effort. GOP primary voters are invested in Trump to the point where attacks on him sound like attacks on them, and attacking the voters is no way to win an election.
Mike Pence lacks Christie’s combative style and New Jersey schtick, but he has had the guts to say that under no circumstances should Trump be President. He has been rewarded for this with a single percentage point in the polls.
Burgum, Scott, and Hutchinson are all but unknown and running into the same problems as their more famous colleagues, and some more. Hutchinson in particular wants to run hard against Trump on the unimpeachable grounds that he’s unfit to be President, but found himself immediately stymied by the Party’s demand that he pledge to support Trump if he is the nominee. Asa has to wink at his own central message before he’s even begun to get it out.
Ramaswamy of course is a wealthy dilettante chasing some fleeting publicity. He should study the Presidencies of Howard Schultz, Ross Perot and Steve Forbes. The country is not looking for someone like Andrew Yang, but nasty instead of genial, and way more out of his depth.
All Republican candidates face the same dilemma — supporting Trump makes them lose, but attacking Trump makes them lose even more. What are they doing?
Some of course want to be Vice-President. It’s a way to become President eventually and those with the appetite for the humiliation , as well as legal (and physical!) jeopardy will line up, but it’s likely to be in vain since Trump has only gotten weaker with the general electorate since his 2020 loss. Moreover, none of them appear “out there” enough for the GOP base which probably wants Mike Flynn, or Alex Jones. If you aren't at least on the DOJ's radar screen, you probably won't be considered.
Others may think there’s a long game to play for 2028 and beyond, after all, Joe Biden ran for President half a dozen times before hitting pay dirt against Trump. But no one wants to be President more than Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and they’ve calculated that there’s more to lose than gain by getting into the ring with Trump this year. The up-and-comers may soon find out how true it is that “everything that Trump touches dies.”
There doesn’t have to be an electoral solution within the Republican Party to the problem of Trump. The base likes him much more than it likes the challengers, and given the siloed information sources that base has, there’s no way to change that. If Trump is on the ballot, he will be chosen by more than enough Republicans to get his third nomination.
The greatest satisfaction Christie will get out of this is updating his “loser, loser, loser” taunt to “loser, loser, loser, loser,” when the dust settles in November, 2024.