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Trump's path to the 2020 GOP nomination should be hard. Joe Walsh's primary challenge is a first step.

No Democrat will make Trump answer to those who mourn the sacrifice of so many conservative values. Only a Republican can do that.
Image: Joe Walsh
Can Joe Walsh forge an unholy GOP alliance against Trump?Adrian Lam / NBC News; Getty Images

The prevailing wisdom among political observers is that there is no appetite among Republican voters for a primary challenge to Donald Trump. That presumption forecloses on the reality that Trump is being challenged on multiple fronts from within the conservative firmament. Of course, why this is happening is not some cosmic mystery. A market cannot be underserved forever, and there is a market — however small — among Republicans for a political course correction.

A market cannot be underserved forever, and there is a market — however small — among Republicans for a political course correction.

The polling landscape in August has not been especially kind to the president. The Associated Press-NORC survey of self-identified Republican adults found a full 20 percent disapprove of the job Trump is doing in office. He fares only a little better among registered Republicans in polls conducted by Reuters/Ipsos and CNN/SSRS. And according to Monmouth University’s poll of registered voters, only 79 percent of self-described Republicans believe Donald Trump deserves to be re-elected. For the moment, approximately one-fifth of all Republican voters perceive themselves to be underserved by this president.

Of course, polls can change. And while it may be comforting for Trump’s most committed defenders to believe that the demand for a primary challenge to Trump is the fabricated product of hostile media and shadowy elites, the market certainly exists. The reality is that Trump has invited a Republican primary opponent, even if it is a weak one.

Measuring the effectiveness of a primary challenge is an exercise in relativity. And since no incumbent president has been denied his party’s nomination for re-election since 1852, assessing the merits of a president’s primary opponent is a subjective venture. It is, however, clear that any serious candidate challenging a sitting president position themselves as ideologically more doctrinaire than the incumbent. Ronald Reagan’s strike at Gerald Ford in 1976, Ted Kennedy’s 1980 bid against Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan’s 1992 challenge to George H.W. Bush all followed this model. And that explains why former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld’s primary challenge has generated almost no traction, whereas former Reps. Joe Walsh and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford might do so.

There are no perfect messengers, as Walsh’s nascent presidential campaign has capably demonstrated. He has so far devoted his first week on the trail to apologizing for his post-congressional career as a fire-breathing radio talk show host who regularly indulged in racist rhetoric (by his own admission) and conspiracy theorizing. Yet, both Walsh and Sanford have embraced a set of issues and policy priorities that Trump has largely abandoned, and which still matter to many Republican voters.

Sanford has predicated his potential primary challenge to Trump on the extent to which he can refocus the Republican electorate on the problems of “debt, and spending, and accumulated deficit.” Walsh has been more circumspect about the issue, but noted that Trump had “increased the debt at a faster clip than Obama.” The cognitive dissonance that typifies a party that supports Trump but still fears the consequences of America’s addiction to fiscal profligacy is hard to overlook, and this contradiction is a smart fissure for a Republican primary challenger to exploit.

Trump has presided over a sharp increase in the national debt, which surpassed $22 trillion this year and is expected to exceed 100 percent of the gross domestic product by 2028. And Republicans do care about the debt. Though the number of Republicans who say reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority for lawmakers has declined as the party’s lawmakers abandoned that issue, a majority of Republicans surveyed by Pew Research Center this year still believe national debt is a major problem.

Despite his best efforts, Trump has also failed to transform the Republican Party into a union of hidebound protectionists. By 52 to 39 percent, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that Republicans are among the 64 percent of all Americans who support free trade. That survey found that most Democrats, too, back a classically liberal international trade regime, but neither their representatives in Congress nor their crop of 2020 presidential aspirants are catering to that sentiment.

Despite his best efforts, Trump has also failed to transform the Republican Party into a union of hidebound protectionists.

Most continue to endorse selectively protectionist policies in support of this or the other privileged constituency, which is the conventional Democratic position on trade. When pressed on whether they plan to repeal Donald Trump’s capricious tariffs, the Democratic Party’s presidential aspirants are strategically evasive. Some of the party’s more progressive candidates even offer a more restrictive menu of trade barriers designed to protect Democratic interest groups like organized labor from foreign competition. By contrast, Trump’s hostility toward free trade abandons what had previously been unassailable Republican orthodoxy. When a Republican president embraces a traditionally Democratic policy position, the backlash shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Both Walsh and Sanford are making the case both for the virtues of free markets and against Trump’s erratic and self-defeating trade policies.

And a staggering majority of Americans, including Republicans, are deeply concerned over the increasing incivility that has come to typify the conduct of politics in the age of Trump. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, a PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll showed 70 percent of Republicans joined 80 percent of all Americans who were concerned that overheated political rhetoric could lead to violence. Now, it’s reasonable to assume that when committed partisans talk about the problem of rhetorical incivility, they’re talking about the other guy’s rhetorical incivility. But it would be excessively cynical to pretend that the president’s racial agitation and grievance peddling do not bother potential Republican voters.

When it comes to presidential comportment, neither Walsh nor Sanford are sterling examples of moral probity. But they are nonetheless positioning themselves as relatively temperate and honorable alternatives to Trump’s style of governance, and that message wouldn’t resonate with Republicans if the president hadn’t sacrificed the high ground.

With dark economic clouds looming only over a distant horizon (many analysts believe a recession is due, but not for as many as 24 months) and consumer confidence reaching its highest point since the dawn of this century, few American military casualties abroad and a raft of policy achievements conservatives appreciate, Trump should not be vulnerable to a primary challenge. And by any sober assessment, any Republican who takes the president on from his right has embarked on a suicide mission (which explains why most top-tier GOP candidates are keeping their powder dry). And yet, both Walsh and Sanford are uniquely positioned to exacerbate the right’s lingering frustrations with the president.

Walsh, a political entertainer and firebrand himself who maintains some attachment to the Obama-era Republican Party’s policy priorities, and Sanford, a Freedom Caucus member in good standing before he crossed the president, demonstrate the extent to which unerring fealty to the president demands subordination to a personality cult. And because no personality cult can abide even a foredoomed challenge to its authority, the president and his supporters are liable to give one or both these candidates more attention than their objective political prospects merit.

There is a forsaken Republican constituency that remembers when the GOP stood for things such as free markets, frugality and moral rectitude, even if it was only ever lip service. Barring a miracle, Trump will not lose his party’s presidential nomination to a Republican opponent, but that is not the chief value proposition of a primary challenge to the president. No Democrat will make Trump answer to Republicans who mourn the sacrifice of so many conservative values. Only a Republican can do that. The candidate who forces the president to engage on those terms will be performing an important duty to their party and their country.