Let me begin by conceding that absent his withdrawal from the race or some criminal disclosure (and even that might not be enough), President Donald Trump will almost certainly be the Republican nominee in 2020. Therefore a primary challenge to the president, while satisfying to some Trump critics (me being one of them), would almost certainly be futile and likely speak to a very narrow audience within the party.
And yet, it is almost certainly worth it. And it should be done not from the left, but from the president’s ideological right.
This notion that any challenger to the president is defined as a moderate or leftist is brilliantly perpetuated by his team in order to insulate him from serious conservative critiques. I don’t blame them for doing so, but the media shouldn’t play along.
What’s truer, however, is that there is a more credible case to make against Trump in a Republican primary on conservative grounds. Part of that case would be based on disagreement with Trump on issues of trade, debt, foreign policy and subsidies—areas where he has ventured away from the GOP mainstream.
But the real contrast with President Trump for a primary challenger from the right would be on style, not substance.
For example, up until a few years ago, there was near universal agreement within the party and among many Democrats on the need for stronger border enforcement that included a wall. Despite President Trump’s claims that he invented the enthusiasm behind this idea, this was a mainstay of Republican politics.
Any challenger to Trump could simply support his calls for more border wall funding, and instead make the case that they could be more effective in securing it. After all, Republicans are right to point out that Democrats from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Chuck Schumer once supported this policy. A more pragmatic politician could rebuild this broad support and wonder aloud why the White House was unable to make progress when it controlled two branches of government, and had to resort to a constitutionally-questionable emergency declaration even when they still controlled the Senate.
The largest block of Trump converts in the Republican Party, voters who once opposed his candidacy but now consider themselves supporters, point to his record on judicial appointments as the reason for their conversion. A primary challenger from the right would only need to say that he or she will continue this record and work with Mitch McConnell to keep up the pace. It is McConnell and outside conservative establishment groups that deserve a lion’s share of the credit after all. Rest easy, the judges will remain conservative and a priority.
And then there are the Trump converts who simply look at the direction of the Democratic Party and say that’s enough to keep them on the president’s side. The rise of democratic socialism, Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, and partial birth abortions is not inviting of centrists. But couldn’t any challenger to Trump keep up the attack on liberalism?
The president’s appeal to many in the party is rooted in his unflinching style and ability to cast aside norms, to speak without filter, and to make the media his primary opponent. But that approach isn’t unique. Attacking the liberals and attacking the media has been central to the party and movement since Goldwater. A challenger doesn’t have to discard that element of politics, even if he or she dials down the rhetoric, and there is plenty of room to dial it down.
In other words, another Republican is vastly capable of making many of the same arguments and enemies that President Trump does, and that Ronald Reagan made many years ago. And a different nominee can continue some of the bright spots of this administration without all of the baggage.
They could also make a case from the right on many issues. Trump was unable to secure a few billion dollars for a border wall, but he has spent well over $12 billion on subsidizing farmers harmed by his trade war. Even if Republicans are malleable on the issue of free trade, as has been proven, they typically don’t love big government subsidies. Experts argue this isn’t even enough to mitigate the harm and more subsidies will be needed.
Of course this issue can also be viewed as part of a broader problem with our national debt and rising deficits. The Republican Party was the party of fiscal responsibility for decades and that mantle should be reclaimed. Trump has shown no inclination to care about or address the debt. If anything, he’s made it worse.
Many Republicans are uncomfortable with Trump’s relationship with Kim Jong Un and his excusing of Kim’s role in the death of Otto Warmbier and the cancellation of military exercises with South Korea. The same can be said for his decision to withdraw from Syria, seemingly at the behest of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A challenger who embodies traditional conservative dogma will, of course, be dinged by Trump and his fans as being a squishy moderate or worse merely because they are of higher moral character or because they embrace civility. But, if anything, some conservatives who have not shied from picking fights with party leaders in the past should relish the opportunity to once again provide a right flank and stop the nominee from straying further from policy doctrines.
Moreover, we as conservatives should recognize that working with Democrats to enact Republican solutions does not make one a Democrat. Lowering taxes and cutting regulations while investing in infrastructure, education and health care can be a Republican platform again. Embracing the Constitution and small government federalism can still be our core.
Some will disagree. For some, the litmus test for conservatism is division, insults and vitriol. For some, the endorsement of the conservative entertainment establishment is all that matters. Some do not share my sense that the Republican Party is losing its ability to appeal to women, minorities and young people. They believe that worrying about these voters makes one a moderate. Some are willing to pay lip service to the faith, decency and humility of passing icons like George H.W. Bush and John McCain but not demand the same character from current party leaders.
For those very reasons, Trump is almost assuredly going to be the Republican nominee. And yet, that doesn’t mean that President Trump can’t and shouldn’t be challenged by a more viable conservative in 2020. In fact, it is quite possible to win over the “Hey, Trump’s not as bad as we expected” voters as a candidate on an unapologetically conservative platform. Someone just may try.