Today we welcome a guest post from Professor Chris Galdieri of St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH. Professor Galdieri teaches the presidency and a course on The New Hampshire primary, as well as other courses on American politics. His research focuses on the interplay between political elites and the mass public.
Presidential nominations are not just about candidates. They are also about parties. Party actors want to win elections and move policy in their preferred direction. The danger of a candidate like Donald Trump, who not only comes from outside the Republican Party but also challenges party orthodoxy on immigration, Planned Parenthood, foreign policy, health care, and a host of other issues is not just that he might lose, but that he might win and move policy in what party actors see as the wrong direction. A Trump nomination is a no-win scenario for many Republicans. If he loses, he may take lots of Republicans down with him. If he wins, there are no guarantees about what he will do in office.
That's among the reasons why Mitt Romney spoke out against Trump in his remarks last week. As a Republican, he sees the danger a Trump nomination or presidency presents and wants to avoid it. But much of the commentary surrounding his remarks speculated on whether he was trying to set himself up as a candidate in the event of a deadlocked, contested convention, or for an independent run. As someone who's run for president twice and nearly ran a third time, his motives had to be considered at least potentially self-interested. And yet he's the highest-profile Republican who can present himself to the party as warning it away from Trump.
Imagine that it's 2020, and the situation is reversed. Republicans are having a fairly normal nomination contest, while a vulgar, bombastic billionaire is running for the Democratic nomination. This billionaire breaks with the party on civil rights, and abortion, and economic policy in significant ways, and threatens democratic norms by gleefully talking about using the power of the presidency against recalcitrant members of Congress and the news media, separation of powers and the First Amendment notwithstanding. Further imagine that this billionaire is on track to win the nomination, and that what opponents remain in the race have been utterly ineffective in countering this billionaire's campaign. Who might speak out to try to warn Democrats away from disaster?
You might start with former presidents who are popular within the party. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama could speak to the party from a position of stature and authority. If they chose not to act, perhaps other Democrats of national stature might speak out, like John Kerry, or Al Gore, or Joe Biden, or Hillary Clinton. And even if none of these people were willing to speak, major figures like Elizabeth Warren or Nancy Pelosi or Howard Dean could. And if for some reason none of these people chose to speak, there are still a handful of nationally known Democrats with no real presidential ambitions and who are respected in the party who might be able to credibly warn Democrats – people like Jerry Brown or Al Franken. There would be no guarantee any of these efforts would succeed, just as there's no guarantee that Romney's remarks will derail the Trump bandwagon. But if the need arose, there are lots of men and women who could make the effort, and to whom we'd expect many Democratic primary voters to at least pay attention.
Republicans in 2016 can't say the same. There are two living Republicans who have been president. The first President Bush is in his nineties and rarely speaks in public any more. The second President Bush had a catastrophic presidency and left office with a dismal approval rating; his standing among the party is so low that Jeb Bush conspicuously avoided putting his last name on his campaign gear, and Dubya's help did nothing to help Jeb on the campaign trail in South Carolina. Dick Cheney has all of the second Bush's marks against him, and none of the goodwill Americans tend to show even disastrous former presidents. Newt Gingrich's scandals hover over him like a dark cloud. Paul Ryan could probably not speak out without endangering his job. Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama twice, so why would Republican primary voters listen to him? After that, you've got the ranks of Republican governors and senators. But many of them ran for president already this cycle, and fared badly (Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Lindsay Graham, Rick Perry). Others are caught up in scandals and controversies in their home states (Rick Snyder, Rick Scott) or are in tough reelection battles (Kelly Ayotte, Rob Portman). And still others have already gotten on board the Trump campaign (Chris Christie, Paul LePage, Jeff Sessions). The rest are barely known beyond their states, or have held office for only a short amount of time (Joni Ernst, Greg Abbott).
And so it fell to Mitt Romney to speak out against Trump yesterday in no small part, it seems, through process of elimination. There simply aren't that many Republicans of anything approaching national stature who can try to rally the party away from Trump. And many Republican voters think Romney blew a winnable election in 2016, and was too liberal, and that his Romneycare paved the way for Obamacare.
This contrast is striking to me because we hear a lot about how the Democrats have been hollowed out during the Obama years. And there is absolutely no denying the party's massive losses at the congressional and state levels. Part of the reason so few Democrats ran for president in 2016 is that so many of them lost elections in 2010 and 2014. But somehow the GOP's successes in those years have not created for them a pool of people who can speak to different parts of the party and be taken seriously, while the Democrats have lots of options should they ever need them. And while we begin the task of trying to explain the rise of Trump and what it means for the Republican Party and the United States, we should consider the leaderlessness of the modern Republican party as a contributing factor.