What interesting times we live in.
Just over six months into the Trump presidency that helped sweep the Republican Party back into total control of Washington, a bevy of GOP insiders and would-be candidates are already looking into a 2020 primary campaign:
Senators Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse have already been to Iowa this year, Gov. John Kasich is eyeing a return visit to New Hampshire, and Mike Pence’s schedule is so full of political events that Republicans joke that he is acting more like a second-term vice president hoping to clear the field than a No. 2 sworn in a little over six months ago.
President Trump’s first term is ostensibly just warming up, but luminaries in his own party have begun what amounts to a shadow campaign for 2020 — as if the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue weren’t involved.
The would-be candidates are cultivating some of the party’s most prominent donors, courting conservative interest groups and carefully enhancing their profiles. Mr. Trump has given no indication that he will decline to seek a second term.
But the sheer disarray surrounding this presidency— the intensifying investigation by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the plain uncertainty about what Mr. Trump will do in the next week, let alone in the next election—have prompted Republican officeholders to take political steps that are unheard-of so soon into a new administration.
Does it even need to be said that this is not normal? It’s not unheard of, of course: Ronald Reagan made a run at Gerald Ford in 1976, Ted Kennedy ran against Carter in 1980, and Buchanan took aim at Bush Senior in 1992. But all of these were insurgent campaigns from party bases that felt ignored by the more center-leaning establishments. Establishment candidates openly running a primary against an incumbent outsider president is a unprecedented in modern American politics.
That is because Trump is no typical outsider president. Reagan and Obama both ran insurgent outsider campaigns against their party establishments, but governed in a more or less responsible fashion within the context of their respective ideologies. Trump is something else altogether: a destructive agent with no apparent policy interests or goals beyond self-aggrandizement, self-enrichment, and waging a social issue war of bigotry and resentment driven by the darkest corners of the conservative media. This is well-known throughout Washington, which explains why Trump and his pronouncements are increasingly being ignored in Congress and throughout government agencies.
And, of course, an entire array of Trump family members, campaign advisors and administration officials are under ongoing investigations over Russian meddling in the election as well as possible financial crimes and obstruction of justice.
But despite Special Counsel Mueller’s impaneling a grand jury as the next step in the investigation, no Republican elected officials have broken ranks to advocate potential impeachment of the president. Instead, ambitious Republican politicians like Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse are hatching such obvious primary campaigns for 2020 that they’re worthy of full articles in the New York Times.
If Trump is such a threat to the nation and to the Republican Party that these Republicans feel the need to primary him, wouldn’t impeaching him and his immediate coterie make more sense? In HBO’s Game of Thrones, the inveterate schemer Littlefinger played by Aidan Gillen famously says in passing of political strategy that “chaos is a ladder.” The political conflagration arising from impeachment would advantage the presidential hopes of aspirants like Sasse and Cotton more than a straight-up run against Trump in 2020 would. A weakened President Pence or President Hatch would make far easier targets, and would be much more likely to step aside for the good of the party.
It may well be that they’re waiting for the right moment: Mueller has not released any specific charges yet, and we’re still early in the investigation. It may also be that Republican hopefuls are waiting for Democrats and congressional veterans without presidential ambitions to do their dirty work for them without actively antagonizing Trump’s loyal voting base. And campaigning in Iowa is a good idea whether one is going up against Trump in 2020, or against Pence or an open field.
That said, Congressmembers who set themselves up to run against Trump in 2020 but avoid trying to impeach him in advance will increasingly be seen as all hat and no cattle. Either the man is a danger to the country or he isn’t.