What Past Also-Rans Can Teach GOP Challengers to Trump
When the results were finally in, when there was no more hope, agents from his Secret Service detail took him away. They sent him into surgery.
“I didn’t drop out until after the California primary, and then I went right to the hospital because I was going to have open-heart surgery,” remembers Pat Buchanan, the 80-year-old conservative who pioneered “pitchfork populism” nearly three decades ago.
Buchanan brought that pointy farm tool right up on stage, campaigned on a motto of “America First,” and scared the hell out of an incumbent U.S. president from his own party. Then the heart valve started leaking, and then the votes stopped coming, and then the insurgency started crumbling. But the heart didn’t cost him, Buchanan tells RealClearPolitics. No, he knew all along that it was “a bit of a problem” and credits the medical diagnosis as motivation, not a detriment. The real trouble was “that party nonsense that kept us off the ballot in South Dakota.”
It was June of 1992 when Buchanan came to after surgery. Ronald Reagan, his old boss, called to cheer him up. George H.W. Bush, his old friend, did not. Maybe that was because Buchanan, a grizzled White House veteran of two Republican administrations and prominent conservative columnist -- and also the recipient of a new artificial heart valve -- had tried knocking him off.
Running for president is hard. Dethroning a sitting president in the primaries is almost impossible. Plenty have tried. All have failed. So why do so many keep taking the leap when history says they will lose?
The list now includes former South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, former Chicago radio show host (and one-term congressman) Joe Walsh, and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. Each is lining up for a chance to compete for the 2020 GOP nomination in an environment in which 88% of the party faithful back President Trump. Those party faithful seem to care less about tweet outbursts and controversies and more about tax cuts and judicial appointees. Still, the current crop of challengers is looking to the template laid down by Buchanan and two other presidential long shots who spoke with RealClearPolitics.
Pat Buchanan jumped Bush when the 41st president was stumbling. As a recession loomed and taxes increased, his poll numbers tumbled from a post-Persian Gulf War high in the upper 80s to a low in the 40s.
“There was a real vacuum and dissatisfaction among those on the Reagan Right,” Buchanan recalled, and so the old Nixon operative entered the primary and headed to New Hampshire. He organized his campaign “like a little Indian raiding party” to make the most of limited resources and to turn the screws on Bush for “all these new regulations and all this new spending."
“And my ambition was basically this: to do exceedingly well in New Hampshire, then defeat the president in one or two primaries, so that Bush – who, there was talk that he wouldn’t run again and his wife didn’t want him to run again -- would have a difficult time getting reelected,” he said.
It worked, at least for a little while. After Buchanan finished second with 38% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, The Manchester Union Leader turned Bush’s 1988 campaign promise on its head. The front page declared: “Read Our Lips!”
Buchanan would not follow up that headline-inspiring second-place finish with another strong showing in South Dakota. Party machinery kept his name off the ballot. Momentum lost was never regained after the insurgent missed what was then the second-in-the nation primary. Then it was over.
“We pretty much got wiped out on Super Tuesday. You realized you just couldn’t do it,” Buchanan says. But could someone else do it? “We are going to find out, aren’t we?” he laughs.
“To make a serious run against the president of the United States, all the stars have to be in alignment, and I doubt if you can do that again,” Buchanan muses. The “also-ran” subset of presidential primary challengers includes some prominent names. Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t win this way, he notes, and neither could Ronald Reagan — which “isn’t bad company to be in.”
After his bulldozing, Buchanan’s populist ideals remained mostly buried. Decades later, another candidate unearthed his “America First” mantra with more success. Reagan didn’t have to wait that long.
The California governor and anti-communist crusader mounted his first bid for the presidency in 1976 when the country was buying pet rocks and sporting polyester suits. “It just really sucked,” remembers Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. “America couldn’t get anything going; nothing seemed to work.”
A nationally recognized name with clean hands post-Watergate, “Reagan steps into this and says, ‘Something needs to be done; the status quo is no longer acceptable,’” Shirley tells RCP. His pitch was simple and, at that time, still new: “Government is not the answer to your problems; the answer is to take power and give it back to the individual because you know best.”
It was a message salient enough among the GOP base to force a fight at the convention. It was not, however, enough to win, even for a candidate as charismatic as Reagan. According to Shirley, who would later work to elect the California Republican in 1980, the enduring lesson is that “naked inside power will always beat outside political power.”
While the goal was the White House, even in defeat the conservative did get one thing: a speech at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Miss. A monotone President Gerald Ford invited his challenger to the podium to make his concession. A vibrant Reagan dazzled with a seemingly impromptu speech. Less than six minutes later, the crowd was enraptured, and one woman was reported to gasp, “My God, we’ve nominated the wrong man.”
“Hearts are with Reagan,” blared a headline in The Missouri Times the next day, summing up reaction to the speech of the also-ran. More than four decades later, Shirley now notes that “by running in 1976, Reagan was running to the right and pulling the Republican Party to the right with him.” By 1980, he had perfected his message and won.
The current crop of candidates hopes to be so fortunate. Though they will be competing in the primary, instead of running as third-party options in the general election, their fates seem more likely to follow that of the last candidate who tried to take on Trump from the right. Evan McMullin just wanted to make a point. With a resume that included stints at the CIA and as a congressional staffer, the then-40-year-old congressional staffer enlisted in the Never Trump movement early on and tried to find someone, anyone, who would take on the nominee.
Finding no takers, McMullin entered the race himself as a third-party candidate, mostly by campaigning on the cable news circuit. For a while the strategy was to deny both Trump and Hillary Clinton the votes they needed in the Electoral College. The Utah native believed that if he could win just enough votes in his Mormon-heavy state to force the race into the House of Representatives, there would be a sort of modern replay of the “Corrupt Bargain” that made John Quincy Adams the sixth president.
This, of course, never came close to happening. The more basic goal, McMullin tells RCP three years removed, was “defending our core principles,” a grab-bag phrase that he used repeatedly.
“I thought Trump was clearly an aspiring strongman, demagogue, and a politician who rejected conservative and American values to empower himself. I knew that was dangerous for the country,” McMullin says. “So, I felt that on the most basic level, someone had to stand up and defend those principles.”
This meant starting a campaign without much of a budget and with a candidate unknown outside of Beltway happy hours. Challenging Trump from the right, McMullin argues, was important enough to risk making Hillary Clinton president. In his telling, putting a Clinton in the White House for a third term might not have been so bad. Had things gone differently, had his campaign denied Trump the presidency, McMullin envisions a stronger Republican Party emerging from the ashes after four years.
“We might have had, say, a Paul Ryan or a Marco Rubio in their pre-Trump form as president with a strengthened, a healthier party for the long term,” he muses.
Eliciting a Kinder, Gentler Trump?
Trying to convert a septuagenarian with a Twitter habit into a genteel country club Republican won’t be easy. But it is not out of the realm of possibility, according to Never Trump godfather Bill Kristol, who has that goal in mind. Kristol has huddled with some of the aspiring Trump challengers, mostly recently breakfasting with Joe Walsh in Washington, D.C. He drafted McMullin in 2016, and now looks for another champion ahead of 2020.
Part of it is ideological, an effort to defend principles when the post-Trump era eventually dawns.
“For me it is really important to hold the flag aloft,” Kristol says. “You don’t know how many people you are going to speak to, but a presidential challenge has the ability to reach a lot of people. I mean it’s more than writing an op-ed or tweeting.”
Part of it is corrective, as McMullin says: redemption according to old school Republican canon.
Voters could always oppose Trump in the primary, Kristol notes, and then vote for him in the general: “If they want to send a signal, even to Trump, that he should moderate his ways a little, well, the best way to do it is the primary vote. He can come back and win them back for the general especially if he shows that he’s listening a little bit to what they are saying.”
In short, winning isn’t the only goal.
Jill Stein seems to be of this opinion. The perennial candidate for the Green Party tells RCP that a third-party challenge doesn’t just protest the duopoly of the current political system, it also breaks through the partisan infrastructure to introduce new ideas into the political bloodstream.
“Do third party challenges change things? They certainly do. It is not only our Green New Deal that has been adopted,” she says before complaining about how the Democratic National Committee only pays lip service to the idea. Instead, she continues, “it is more the candidates that are claiming the progressive mantle and promoting it.”
But the GOP challengers waiting in the wings may be ill-suited to this task, even if their own definitions of success are not outright victory. None has the following that Reagan enjoyed ahead of 1976; he was widely considered a national conservative thought leader at the time. None has the opportunity that Buchanan exploited either; Trump has weathered his share of bad polling but nothing like what confronted Bush in 1992. Instead, they have Trump himself.
Asked what his pitch is apart from assailing the personality of the president, Joe Walsh laughed: “It is a great question and the only reason I’m laughing – I’m not laughing at your question — it’s just kind of weird. I’m doing this because I think he is a clear and present danger. It is a referendum on him.”
The Republican National Committee is intent that a referendum never happens and has taken steps to close primaries before challengers can enter. But with unclear goals and history against them, it seems more than unlikely that any of those Republicans aspiring to the presidency can do much to change the 2020 landscape.
On top of extraordinary good luck, candidates would have to rival the appeal of Teddy Roosevelt or Pat Buchanan or Ronald Reagan to even make a dent. Shirley, the presidential biographer, is currently unimpressed. All may have good hearts, unlike Buchanan. But none, he says, “could hold Reagan’s jockstrap.”