I’ve long suspected that part of the reason for America’s great economic success is that its politicians spend so much time running for election that they just don’t have the time to do very much damage to the economy. With almost 18 months still to go until next year’s presidential election, the contest is already consuming huge amounts of attention in the media and the political class.
Another Republican hopeful has stepped forward, seeking to be the nominee who will (barring something unforeseen) challenge Democrat incumbent Joe Biden. South Carolina senator Tim Scott, who officially launched his campaign yesterday, becomes the sixth declared Republican candidate. Florida governor Ron DeSantis is expected to follow suit later this week.
Scott is the fourth serious African-American candidate for the Republican nomination in recent times, following Alan Keyes in 2000, Herman Cain in 2012 and Ben Carson in 2016. As compared to them he has much more experience in government, having spent ten years in the Senate and been a member of the House of Representatives and the South Carolina state legislature prior to that.
More significantly, while the others all pitched their appeal very much to the right of the party, Scott is, by contemporary standards, a moderate Republican. That’s largely a matter of tone: Scott’s policy positions are pretty standard right-wing fare, but he presents as more conciliatory and optimistic, as a seeker of consensus rather than an ideological warrior. In a party that is now overwhelmingly defined by its attitudes towards Donald Trump, Scott comes across as positively non-Trumpy.
Paradoxically that has made him, so far, the candidate who least attracts Trump’s anger. Trump seems much more to direct his fire against candidates who try to take votes from him by imitating his style – most obviously against DeSantis, whom he has tagged “Ron DeSanctimonious”. Scott and DeSantis represent opposing strategies for confronting Trump: to stake out a distinctively different persona, or to stick as close as possible to Trumpist policies and approach, offering Trumpism without Trump.
So far, neither strategy is looking good. Polls show Trump with a large and increasing lead; he is now consistently polling above 50% among Republican voters, with DeSantis languishing around 20% and no-one else even close to double figures. An aggregation of the betting odds gives Trump a 63.6% chance at the nomination ahead of DeSantis’s 24.4%, followed way back by Nikki Haley 2.5%, Scott 2.0% and Mike Pence (who is also yet to declare himself) 1.6%.
But as noted at the start, there’s a long way to go. Although his odds have improved recently, there’s still a general perception that Trump can’t possibly beat Biden in a general election, and as the time approaches it’s possible that Republican voters will flip over to caring more about electability. And the main problem that people like Scott have to overcome at the moment is lack of name recognition: that will take time, but they have time.
It’s not just the voters that have to make decisions, but also the Republican establishment. They know that Trump, if he is the nominee, will damage their prospects in other races; they also know that if a second Trump presidency were to somehow eventuate, it would be an even more unpleasant experience for them than the first one. They want to exorcise the Trump demon, but they seem clueless as to how to go about it.
One thing that’s clear is that a number of viable candidates all competing against Trump – and each other – well into primary season is a recipe for disaster. If Trump is to be beaten, his opponents have to coalesce at some reasonably early date around a single standard-bearer. There’s plenty of time for that too, and in the meantime it’s good for Scott, DeSantis and the rest to be trying out different strategies, in the hope of hitting on one that works.
In 2020, Democrat voters and strategists had a similar problem, trying to unite behind a more electable candidate to take on the front-runner, Bernie Sanders. To the surprise of many commentators, they managed it. But they had an advantage over their Republican counterparts; they knew that the large majority of Democrats cared about electability and were willing to put it ahead of their tribal loyalties.
It’s not at all clear that Republican voters feel the same way. But some time over the next twelve months, we’ll find out.
PS (Friday morning): DeSantis has now officially launched his campaign, in a Twitter event that turned into a technological fiasco. I’m inclined to think that’s a good thing for anti-Trump Republicans; from their point of view, DeSantis is just muddying the waters, promoting Trumpism without being Trump. They need to get him out of the way so they can settle on a genuine alternative, so the sooner his campaign implodes, the better.
2 thoughts on “The Republican field gets bigger”
So long as the agenda that Republican politicians want to implement is the same in practice as the Trump agenda, the chances of their exorcising the Trump demon must be nil or close to it. It’s also doubtful whether they can get Republican voters to support them while they pursue a different agenda, but even if it’s a slim chance it’s the only practical one they have while Donald himself is still in the field. As far as I can tell, though, they don’t themselves want to pursue a different agenda. Republican politicians who don’t like the Trump demon are in the position of people who don’t want to believe that what they’re looking at is a mirror. As CS Lewis put it in That Hideous Strength:
I think there’s some truth in that. At least in the sense that the mainstream Republicans don’t want to give up the advantages that they got by appealing to the sort of sentiments that later fed Trumpism. They might not be racists themselves, for example (although some obviously are), but they know they get a lot of votes out of racism – and have been doing so since well before Trump – and they don’t want to give that up. But who’s going to vote for a sort of half-baked Trumpism when they can have the real thing?
If you haven’t already seen it, Richard Hanania is very good on this: https://www.richardhanania.com/p/the-biomechanics-of-trumpism