What is the point of a primary campaign against President Donald Trump?
Denying him the Republican presidential nomination in 2020 is not realistic. While some Republicans still oppose Trump, they’re a small fraction of the party. Many other Republicans have reservations and objections to Trump, but don’t want to see a Democrat in the White House. (An increasing fear of handing the presidency to the other party is likely the reason incumbent presidents have rarely faced primary challenges in recent decades.)
The prospects are too daunting for ambitious Republican politicians to jump into the race. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who may have a future as a Republican in national office, won’t run. The reluctance of such figures leaves anti-Trump Republicans with less compelling candidates.
Bill Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, last won an election 25 years ago. Joe Walsh served one term as a congressman from Illinois; that fact and his party affiliation are the only things he has in common with Abraham Lincoln. Mark Sanford has experience with a primary campaign that beat an incumbent — but he was the incumbent in question, losing the nomination for his House seat last year. Trump’s strength among Republicans is thus self-reinforcing: It keeps strong challengers out of the primary, making his hold on the nomination even firmer.
What we are talking about, then, is a protest candidacy: a way for anti-Trump Republicans to register their opposition to the president and their support for the values that underlie that opposition. The campaign’s backers would of course want their candidate to become president if (several bolts of) lightning should strike. But a merely respectable showing would demonstrate the continuing relevance of a non-Trumpist conservatism and could help to set the direction of the party after Trump — especially if he either loses in November 2020 or has a second term that Republicans come to see as a failure.
The Republicans and conservatives who oppose Trump do so chiefly on grounds of character. Many of them disagree with particular policies of his, too, especially on trade and immigration. But the criticism that unites them is characterological. Many of them supported Mitt Romney, for example, even though he threatened tariffs on China and promised “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants.
The critics object to Trump’s impulsiveness, his conspiracy theorizing, his dishonesty, his bigoted remarks, his poor judgment in associates, and so on. It follows that a plausible candidate against Trump -- plausible, again, in the sense of offering a reasonable way to lodge a protest, not in the sense of having a high probability of winning -- would have to be someone who can make a credible case against Trump’s character. The candidate would not have to be a saint, but would have to pass minimal tests such as not having spread bigoted conspiracy theories himself.
Walsh by his own admission cannot pass that test: He repeatedly and falsely claimed that President Barack Obama was a Muslim, and treated it as a mark against him. He has repudiated those remarks, which is laudable. It would also be laudable if he confined himself to a supporting role in any campaign against Trump.
Sanford is a closer case. His infidelity to his former wife should not by itself be disqualifying, I think, especially against Trump. It does, however, undermine his ability to critique Trump. Perhaps more important, he seems inclined to run a campaign based on entitlement reform: a good and important cause, but not the top issue for most Trump opponents or any other large number of voters.
That’s not to deny that an anti-Trump candidate would have to outline positions on policy issues. That imperative raises another problem: Conservative opponents of Trump are more unified in detesting his character than they are on issues. It appears that most of the Republicans who are disaffected in the Trump era are socially moderate — but not all of them are.
I suspect that the protest candidate with the broadest possible support would be socially conservative. We know that Republicans, and people who used to consider themselves Republicans before Trump, are generally willing to vote for candidates who oppose abortion and gun control even if they themselves do not. They voted for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, after all. Right-leaning voters on the other side of those issues are much less inclined to overlook them when casting their votes. To put it another way: I’m pretty critical of Trump, but if he and Weld were the only candidates on the primary ballot, I’d probably write in a third name.
The criteria for a promising protest candidate are thus not especially stringent. He or she needs to be a conservative, without a large asterisk, with a record of sanity and decency. Surely in this great and large nation, anti-Trump Republicans can find someone who meets them.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.