The Republican Party is never going back
I don't know about you, but for me "Having more people run for president and effectively doubling the number of primary contests" is not up there with "Michigan beating Notre Dame in the playoffs" and "A new deluxe edition of Barbara Bush's letters" on the list of things I want to see next year. But this is what we are going to get if all of the roughly six living #NeverTrump Republicans get their way.
Already four of the six are looking seriously at the possibility of challenging President Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2020. According to the Washington Post, Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina congressman and governor of "Appalachian Trail" fame, is reaching out to party activists in New Hampshire about running as a deficit hawk. Jeff Flake, the aptly named retired senator from Arizona who distinguished himself at the end of his political career by whining as loudly as possible about Trump while inventing principled-sounding reasons for supporting pretty much everything his administration did, claims that donors are reaching out to him preemptively. John Kasich, who completed his second term as the governor of Ohio last year, is also headed up to the Granite State, where he finished a very distant second to Trump in 2016. Meanwhile Bill Weld, who was the Republican governor of Masschusetts around the time AOL was America's largest provider of internet service before becoming a Libertarian and then changing his mind again, still insists that he is in it to win it. "Is Bill Weld the Hero Never Trumpers Have Been Waiting For?" the Post asks. Think how sad it would be if the answer to that question is yes.
What is the point of all of this? I mean besides massing the egos of the individuals involved and giving Rick Wilson something to whine about on MSNBC. Does anybody really think that the same Republican primary electorate who chose Trump in 41 primaries in 2016 are going to change their minds and select the guy who was so liberal that the Republican-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee wouldn't even hold a hearing on his nomination to be ambassador to Mexico in 1997? Assuming that they did pick him — or the guy who used public funds to visit his mistress in Argentina after turning down $700 million in stimulus money for residents of his home stage, or the former senator who thinks the cost of having military jets at NASCAR races is one of the most pressing crises faced by the republic, or the guy whose own sitting lieutenant governor said that she disagreed with everything he'd ever done in her campaign to replace him — then what? Is one of these men actually expected to win the White House?
Of course not. They're not even supposed to win their party's nomination, which is never going to be wrested from a sitting president. Instead, one or more of these self-aggrandizing nonentities is supposed to run in the hope of weakening Trump in the general election. It's not about them winning — it's about him losing.
The people who have convinced themselves that this could be a successful strategy are probably looking to the example of Gerald Ford in 1976 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. It is true that both of these incumbent Republican presidents failed to win re-election following primary challenges from Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan respectively. But there are few if any reasons to think that a similar result would follow.
Consider the context. Ford was not especially beloved of the Republican electorate in 1976. He had never run for any office higher than Congress, not even the vice presidency, to which he was appointed by Nixon before the latter resigned. Reagan was by then already a popular figure in conservative circles, a two-term governor of the nation's most populous state and someone with virtually universal name recognition.
Which brings us to an even more crucial difference between the Ford and Bush situations and the present. Both Reagan and Buchanan represented the future of the GOP when they declared themselves against the sitting presidents, both of whom were throwbacks. For Republican voters in 1976, Reagan promised an end to the moderate paternalism of the Nixon years; here, finally, was a more telegenic version of Barry Goldwater, someone who would usher in a new era of "principled conservatives," a man who could reach beyond the party base to Democratic evangelicals in the South. By the time he was re-elected in 1984, the party had been remade in his image. Likewise, in 1992 Buchanan was already announcing the great themes — opposition to globalized capitalism and free trade, the importance of winning over working-class voters who did not see themselves as a part of the established conservative movement, above all, the great "culture war" against the forces of liberalism — that would eventually carry Trump to victory.
By contrast, Weld, Sanford, Kasich, and Flake all belong to the Republican party's past. They are out of touch, not only with where the GOP is at present but with its future. Nothing would please them more than destroying the man whom they blame for their defeat. But Trump did not invent widespread dissatisfaction with fusionist conservatism, just as Reagan did not create it single-handedly. #NeverTrumpers are promising a return to a consensus that voters have already rejected, not only in 2016 but in 2012 and 2008 as well.
Instead of mounting a doomed campaign out of resentment, they should ask themselves why this is.