We may just be wrapping up 2020, but 2024 already looms on the horizon. If Republicans want to win the White House again, they must create a secret political sauce: it needs just enough Trump to win, but not so much that it sours the taste buds of the moderate middle.
Clearly, the Republican party has shifted and the Trump influence is here to stay. To better understand why 2020 likely turns out differently than 2016, let’s take a look back.
Republicans everywhere were on edge. After eight years of President Obama, another four or eight years of (gasp) Hillary Clinton seemed likely. So every GOP hopeful who ever envisioned a White House run stepped up to the stage, including some who weren’t yet ready and some who were past their prime. Never before was there a larger, more diverse, or better known field of Republican presidential hopefuls than in 2016.
There was the next-in-line executor of the Bush dynasty, Jeb! The son and brother of former presidents was supposed to be the one really made for the job — smart, experienced, married to a Latina. Also from Florida, there was Bush’s protégé, Senator Marco Rubio, the fresh-faced son of Cuban immigrants who could bring the Hispanic vote.
There were other popular and successful governors from a host of states: George Pataki the two-term New Yorke; Bobby Jindal, the first Indian-American governor; Chris Christie, the once rising star; the affable Mike Huckabee; the obscure Jim Gilmore; the moderate John Kasich; the survivor Scott Walker; and the forgetful Rick Perry. Governors are said to be among the most prepared for the White House, and 2016 had an all-star cast.
Senators, who have had less success reaching 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, were also well represented. In addition to Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum sought the nomination.
There was Dr. Ben Carson – an African American with a great rags to riches story (rare for Republicans). There was businesswoman, Carly Fiorinia. And there was a well-known billionaire land baron and television star. A guy who nobody believed was actually running until at least the first GOP debate, Donald J. Trump.
These 17 candidates would battle it out for the opportunity of meeting the certain Democrat nominee, former Secretary of State, senator from New York and first lady, Hillary Clinton. In fact, a second Bush-Clinton election contest seemed the most likely outcome as the calendar flipped to 2015. The nomination was Jeb’s to lose, with everyone else vying for the VP slot.
Somebody forgot to tell Trump. Or maybe they did tell him, and that served as his motivation. Like a jailhouse bully, Trump set his sights on the biggest target in the yard. Jeb never knew what hit him. Trump brought a different style of campaigning. He whipped up nicknames: “Low Energy Jeb,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco.” And they stuck. It’s doubtful anybody ever considered Jeb Bush “low energy” before the summer of 2015, but think about it. For all of his good qualities, the man is low energy. He was finished.
One by one, the candidates would step up to battle Trump. One by one, they would fall to the wayside. The ones who didn’t directly challenge him also fell away, but remained in his good graces. Carson and Perry got cabinet spots. Christie was rumored for several, and remained a close advisor. Some fierce adversaries went on to become staunch allies. Graham and Cruz remain among Trump’s greatest defenders. Paul is not far behind.
More or less, each of the other 16 candidates approached the 2016 nomination process from a traditional standpoint. They expected to stake out policy positions, attack Clinton head-on, rumble with each other as needed, blast the Obama years, and settle the score in a gentlemanly (or ladylike) way. That approach would likely have resulted in a second President Clinton.
Only Donald Trump had the fight, the mean streak, the shameless, unpolitician-like naiveté, and the sheer arrogance to take on the president-in-waiting Hillary Clinton and beat her.
What got Donald Trump elected in 2016 is precisely what got him (seemingly) defeated in 2020. He broke the mold. He called it like he saw it. He took no prisoners. Whatever your favorite cliché is for shocking the world, Trump did it.
Let’s set aside what Trump did – all the good and the not so good – in his four years in office. It’s an exhaustive list that has been exhaustively covered. Donald Trump didn’t change in four years. He’s the same guy who won in 2016. Many would argue – and I’d be one of them – that he improved his image during his term because he got stuff done. If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic, there would be only feeble arguments to be made that he really screwed anything up. (That’s not to say he did or didn’t screw up the COVID response, but let’s agree that it opened him up to reasonable criticism).
What changed was the political landscape, and of course, the opponent. Say what you will about Joe Biden, but we can all agree that he’s no Hillary Clinton. On one hand, Clinton’s friends and foes would agree that she’s tough. There would be little concern of Clinton caving to the far left wing of her party, as there is with Biden. But overshadowing that is the immense disdain of the American public. Most people just don’t like Hillary, and that’s the best thing Trump had going for him in 2016. He was the only one on the GOP primary debate stage who mercilessly and tastelessly criticized her. It won him votes in 2016, but it wasn’t a repeatable strategy for 2020.
The slate of 2024 GOP candidates will need to learn from both of Trump’s campaigns if they want to defeat Kamala Harris, or whoever gets the next Democrat nod.
Trump has cultivated a following unlike any president in my lifetime. Ronald Reagan won 49 states and had the love and adoration of most Americans, but it was nothing like what you see at a MAGA rally or boat parade. The raging loyalty of Trump supporters is real, and it’s likely to only grow stronger in the wake of what many of them believe was a stolen election.
But that support hits a wall with at least half the country. True, there are Democrats who love President Trump and Republicans who hate him. He does have crossover appeal. But there is very little middle ground when it comes to Trump. It’s love or hate – either for him or for the ideals of the progressive Democrats that many fear will shape the Biden agenda.
So how do Josh Hawley (R-MO), Nikki Haley (R-SC), Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Cruz or any other potential 2024 GOP hopefuls walk the tightrope of channeling just enough Trump but not too much? Figuring that out could be the key to the White House.
The 2024 nominee needs to win over the Trump faithful – the MAGA crowd – without alienating the moderate right or the “Biden Republicans.” He or she will need to pull some Democrat votes, perhaps different ones than Trump did. For starters, anyone with the last name Trump (or Kushner) – unless it’s The Donald himself – would be a sure loser. While the MAGA camp would lovingly embrace a Don Jr. or Ivanka candidacy, it would be an electoral flop. President Trump is the only one from the current first family who could pull out a victory in ’24. In fact, after four years of Biden-Harris, he would have at least as good a shot as he did this year.
Any other nominee will have to win Trump’s blessing, but not go so far as to publicly kiss the ring. He or she will need to adopt much of Trump’s fighting spirit, especially if Harris is the opponent. But the chosen one must also know when to throttle it back – something Trump has never mastered. Haley, Pence, Hawley or whoever it is, cannot indulge chants like “lock her up” at rallies. They won’t be able to create nicknames for opponents. The nominee must be active on Twitter, without Trump’s impulsiveness. He or she must likely embrace an “America first” agenda, and fight for fair trade deals and reasonable peace and arms treaties, as Trump has done. But the nominee will also need to show an ability to cordially mingle with other world leaders. Whoever is on the ballot must exude semi-Trump-like confidence along with the wit and self-deprecation of George W. Bush. He or she will have to – at all times – appear both tough and likeable, confident and capable, ready for a fight, but happy to avoid an unnecessary one.
The landscape is changing. We may be on the verge of three major parties – Democrat, Republican and Trumpian (or perhaps MAGA). Many Trump supporters have sworn off the GOP, Fox News and any senator or representative who doesn’t boldly proclaim that Trump was robbed. They darn sure won’t vote for a Democrat, but the withholding of their support could ensure eight years of a liberal in the White House. The Republican party needs to retain these voters, while recapturing the defectors who went for Biden. Whichever candidate can do that most effectively will be well-positioned for 2024.
Follow Jason Thomas (@jasonthomas01) on Twitter.
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