This strikes me as among the worst reasons to primary Trump. Who but the leadership in Congress is nostalgic for “what the Republican Party is”? Note: Is, not purports to be. If you’re a conservatarian in search of smaller government, you know painfully well the difference between “purports to be” and “is.” The GOP is the “small-government party” only by process of elimination. And in fairness to the many well-meaning failures who’ve led it on the Hill since the age of Reagan, however strong their own commitment to Reagan’s vision might be, the fact remains that they’re stuck with an electorate that simply doesn’t share it. We can debate to what extent the Republican base wants limited government; there’s no debate that Americans writ large don’t. Even if Mitch McConnell wanted to reform entitlements and didn’t have the Democratic filibuster to contend with, it’d be a political Jonestown for the GOP to do it.
And is anyone nostalgic for “what the Republican Party is” on foreign policy? We can point to this policy or that one as salutary, but the party’s FoPo legacy for a generation will be Iraq. There’s a reason Dubya’s job approval reached the 20s in the final year of his presidency, months before Lehman Brothers collapsed. Even Trump amid his many difficulties hasn’t approached that degree of unpopularity.
“What the Republican Party is” is a party that’s managed to win the popular vote once in the past 30 years, and that one time came in an election that had been transformed by events into a referendum on the war on terror. To find the last Republican president to win the popular vote twice we have to go back to the Gipper himself. Why would Bob Corker or anyone else want to reclaim the dismal record of the past 30 years?
If you’re inclined to primary Trump there are only two reasons to do it. One: To point the way towards GOP 2.0. If you think Trumpism is a fad, or at least badly want it to be a fad, you might run in 2020 purely to get Republican voters thinking about an alternate direction. The point wouldn’t be to win — no one will unseat a sitting president in a primary — but to create political space for a different kind of right-wing agenda. But where would that space lie? Run to Trump’s right and you end up either with libertarianism, which nothing remotely close to a popular majority wants, or just warmed-over traditional Republican orthodoxy — “what the Republican Party is,” in Corker-speak. Working-class white voters, on whom the GOP increasingly depends, don’t want government out of their lives. They want help. Trump’s offering it on trade, however counterproductively. What’s the alternative? Bigger Rubio-esque tax credits?
Two: To make the case on a big stage that, however Republicans may differ on what the party should be, they should at least agree that the president is a rolling personal embarrassment and unfit for office. Keep the Trump policies if you like, in other words, but jettison the messenger. There’s not a single Republican pol I can think of, though, who stands for “Trumpist nationalism, except marginally competent and dignified.” Tom Cotton might fit the bill, but Cotton’s a very young man who’s angling to inherit Trump’s base in 2024. He’d be insane to alienate them by primarying their hero in 2020. A Jeff Flake or a Ben Sasse would be well equipped to make the case against Trump on character grounds (they’ve been doing it daily for two years), but Flake and Sasse are both conservative ideologues. Their personal critique of the president would get tangled up with their smaller-government preferences, which gets us right back to the problem with a “GOP 2.0” message.
It’s telling that in his spiel here about speaking up for “what the Republican Party is,” Corker himself never attempts to specify. Who can blame him? What highlights of GOP governance would one reach for to flesh out this point except tax cuts, which is the one bit of Republican orthodoxy that Trump himself agrees with? Anyway, two clips for you here, one of Corker mulling the primary possibilities and the other of him wrestling with whether he might prefer a Democrat(!) to a Trump second term. Exit question: Is Corker himself thinking of primarying Trump? He’s not asked about that specifically here, but he seems to suggest it when he says he wants to consider the subject at length away from Washington.
Corker: I want to "get away" from Washington and think about it before I say whether Trump should be primaried in 2020 pic.twitter.com/M2iSGYQchU
— TPM Livewire (@TPMLiveWire) December 17, 2018
Sen. Corker's answer on whether a Democratic president in 2020 would be better for the country than a re-elected Donald Trump pic.twitter.com/CoaNrwEh8J
— Way Too Early with Kasie Hunt (@WayTooEarly) December 17, 2018