If Joe Walsh Is the Answer, Ask a Different Question

Joe Walsh announces his intention to challenge President Donald Trump for the Republican party’s 2020 White House nomination in a campaign video obtained by Reuters, August 25, 2019. (joewalsh.org/Handout via Reuters)
If Trump’s rise signaled or even exacerbated a decline in the health of the GOP, the also-rans challenging him in the 2020 primaries aren’t the cure.

What is the premise of Joe Walsh’s primary challenge to President Trump? It seems unlikely that Republican voters want to downgrade from a prime-time reality-TV star to a talk-radio host. Is there a meaningful difference between Trump, who believed that Obama was Kenyan, and Walsh, who believed Obama was a closet Muslim? Trump at least denies he says and does racist things. Walsh, more honest but less politic, admits “I’ve said racist things,” even if “I wouldn’t call myself racist.” Walsh, like Trump, once supported gun control.

What separates these voluble, verbally incontinent men? Hmm. Well, one of them has won a presidential election! That’s one thing.

It’s understandable that some Republicans desire to see Trump challenged in the primaries. His approval ratings are starting to sink back to the dangerous level that naturally attracts primary challenges. He is fantastically unpopular among the segments of the American population that are growing the fastest. Though the compiled record of his administration looks loudly if insignificantly Republican, Trump is ideologically heterodox, a point emphasized by the growing importance of his trade war with China. His personal volatility seems to impose costs. A variety of his promises remain unmet. (There is no big, beautiful wall.) And, given his feuds with former cabinet members, he’s admitted that he hasn’t always hired “the best people.”

In addition to Walsh, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld has already entered the primary race against Trump, and John Kasich and Mark Sanford are rumored to be considering their own bids as well. These men have all technically accomplished more as candidates than Pat Buchanan had when he challenged George H.W. Bush in 1992. Their willingness to enter the race serves as a reminder that while Trump angers some moderate Republicans, he hardly pleases all conservatives either.

But we’ve seen this multi-pronged attack on Trump before and it doesn’t work. Remember Mitt Romney’s big anti-Trump speech during the last primaries? He landed some good lines. But this tongue lashing was in service of an electoral strategy that was bust from the start. “Given the current delegate-selection process,” he averred, “I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.” This was a pure Stop Trump movement that launched long after many Republicans had reconciled themselves to seeing how far the Trump Train could go.

Trump’s relatively high approval rating among a shrinking pool of Republicans suggests that he is not truly vulnerable. There’s no one broken promise that unites most of the party in anger like Bush’s read-my-lips pledge did. There’s no single aspect of the Trump presidency that most Republicans agree is in need of egregious correction. For some, Trump’s trade war is the outrage. For others, it is a foreign policy that degrades the importance of NATO or minimizes threats from Russia. For others still, it is simply Trump’s bad character, and the way he seems to relish exploiting and exacerbating existing social divisions in the country.

The Republican party continues to delay rethinking its future. Trump’s election was a hilarious repudiation of the results of the 2012 post-election autopsy report, which recommended that donors take more control of the party’s agenda away from voters. Both that establishment-driven agenda and the populist one that found a vessel in Trump seem to be dead ends.

There is no set of ideas that will magically reconcile all the disparate factions of the GOP. And if there were, merely exorcising Trump from the American scene would not make it materialize. Republicans will find ideas to implement after they assemble a coalition and begin to ruminate on that coalition’s interests. I don’t see Kasich, Sanford, Weld, or Walsh adding very much to that process.