As the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries continue to unfold, millions across the country have their eyes on the candidates to see who might become the nominee. However, the pomp and circumstance surrounding this contentious race have seemingly overshadowed a far more troubling development within the Republican presidential primary.
In modern history, the sitting president has rarely been challenged in his own party’s primary by serious candidates. While there have been some challengers to incumbent presidents in the past 70 years, the commander-in-chief has often retained his role as the nominee with little opposition. In fact, the last time a candidate came close to unseating a sitting president in the primary elections was in 1992 when Pat Buchanan ran against George H. W. Bush.
That’s why this election cycle has come as a surprise. Three Republicans have launched rival campaigns against President Trump for the nomination: former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh, and former South Carolina congressman Mark Sanford. These three candidates, who all take issue with Trump’s behavior, hope to provide Republican voters with an alternative to Trump, arguing that they represent conservative values more accurately and honorably than he ever could.
However, their role in the Republican primary has largely been downplayed and overlooked, likely as an effort by Republican leaders to lend the impression of stronger party unity. Rival candidates within a party’s primary signify to the public at least some level of dissatisfaction with the president among the party’s members. If people were happy with a president’s performance, there would be no hesitation or misgivings about giving him the nomination.
By hardly acknowledging the presence or legitimacy of Sanford’s, Weld’s, and Walsh’s campaigns, Trump discredited these men as fringe candidates. Trump has been able to get many of his voters to view his rivals’ primary campaigns as mere personal attacks instead of indications of party discontent by characterizing his opponents as petulant, moronic, and bitter.
This is the same tactic Trump has used throughout his presidency to disparage others who have defied him. By branding those who publicly oppose him as “Never Trumpers,” Trump turns his loyal base against respectable statesmen and women. By flippantly and baselessly attacking his opponents’ reputations, Trump demonizes even the slightest opposition to his policies and personality, in effect normalizing demands for uniformity of opinion within the Republican party.
With fewer points of view, political discourse becomes inherently limited. Important sides to issues remain overlooked, and politicians in Washington no longer truly represent the wide spectrum of opinions of their constituents. If parties continue to restrict the beliefs their members can hold, politics in America will continue to become more polarized. The lawmaking process has the potential to become stagnant because parties will refuse to make any concessions or compromises to those across the aisle because their reputation might be damaged.
This was most recently observed in the Senate impeachment trial that took place in January and February of 2020. During the proceedings, when it came time to vote on the possibility of hearing witness testimony, Trump pressured GOP Senators via Tweet to vote against any witnesses. While Susan Collins and Mitt Romney sided with Democrats and voted for witnesses, all of the other Republican Senators remained steadfast in their unquestioning loyalty to Trump.
When the vote finally came to decide whether Trump should be removed from office, the Senators were split along party lines. However, Romney voted to remove Trump on one of the two articles of impeachment, much to the chagrin of GOP leadership in the Senate. Romney was quickly met with condemnation from both the president and his Republican colleagues, who said that he was bitter and misguided.
While it is not unreasonable for party leadership to seek unity in key votes in Congressional assemblies, it is disheartening to see President Trump and Mitch McConnell resort to what could only be described as intimidation and coercion in order to secure complete uniformity in opinion. Romney voted according to his conscience during the trial and has subsequently faced censure for it. Disagreeing with the president should not be grounds for ostracization within one’s own party.
This pursuit of unity at the cost of integrity has now spread to the 2020 Republican primaries. At least nine states have either cancelled their primaries or will not feature Trump’s challengers on the ballot, effectively giving Trump state delegates with no contest. While primaries have been cancelled in previous years, this has never been done when there were multiple serious contenders running in opposition to the president. To some Americans, this disenfranchisement is cause to doubt the legitimacy of the American political system. How can America profess to be a government chosen by the people when they aren’t offered any choice?
It could be argued that the states that have changed their primaries did so only because they felt that they were saving time and money. After all, in 2004, some states decided to cancel their primaries and pledge their delegates to President George W. Bush without a vote. However, in that election, the most popular Republican challenger was only able to earn a spot on the ballot in 5 states and received less than 11,000 votes nationally. It hardly seems like Bush was presented with serious opponents with national name recognition.
Regardless of whether the GOP cancelled the primaries for the sake of unity or for pragmatism, one can’t argue that the move looks particularly good. Weld, Sanford, and Walsh all have openly condemned the GOP, denouncing it as undemocratic and tyrannical. It appears as if Trump sympathizers in GOP leadership are attempting to diminish the role of these candidates and their influence on voter’s opinions. Party managers seem to view campaigns from Republican rivals as an embarrassment to the President and are therefore taking extra precautions to prevent them from publicly criticizing him.
With fewer chances to obtain delegates and to campaign publicly, the other Republican candidates have been put at a serious disadvantage. Sanford ended his campaign in early November because he felt that he did not have the platform to campaign on real political issues given the current media climate. Joe Walsh has already dropped out of the race for the nomination after a disappointing showing in Iowa where he received only 1.1% of the vote.
Initially, Walsh argued that he would have wide Republican support because he thought that deep down, all Republicans knew that Trump was unfit for office. However, upon his withdrawal from the primaries, Walsh apparently felt disillusioned, claiming the Republican party was a “cult” and declaring that he would support the Democratic nominee in the general election, even if it was someone like Bernie Sanders.
Whether or not all Republicans truly support Trump, the party’s leadership has done an impressive job giving the impression that they do. By removing opportunities for expressing dissent and pressuring politicians to echo Trump’s own sentiments, the GOP appears to have formed a solid foundation from which they will launch a hard-fought general election campaign. While Weld has remained in the race longer than Sanford and Walsh, it is unlikely his run will prevent Trump’s nomination at the Republican National Convention.
Overall, the 2020 Republican primary has demonstrated the willingness of Republicans to blindly agree with party leaders in order to ensure they have the coalition to keep Trump in office for another term. They have been quick to dismiss, intimidate, and overlook any opportunity for disagreement within their own party for the sake of saving face and avoiding embarrassment. The GOP has collectively decided that compromising on some of their beliefs is worth having a Republican president in the White House.
If Democrats wish to stand a chance against Trump in November, they must respond with just as much ferocity. Voters must unite behind whoever the Democratic nominee is, even if it is someone they may disagree with on certain issues. The only way to fight the formidable PR machine of the Trump administration will be to achieve record turnout on election day. Republicans have already demonstrated their capacity for organization. Democrats must respond and mobilize on an entirely different scale if they wish to take back the White House.
Categories: Domestic Affairs