Sizing up Trump's primary opponents

Sizing up Trump's primary opponents
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At first glance, it looks like Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUPS, FedEx shut down calls to handle mail-in ballots, warn of 'significant' problems: report Controversial GOP Georgia candidate attempts to distance from QAnon Trump orders TikTok parent company to sell US assets within 90 days MORE’s three primary challengers are just a random assortment of disgruntled ex-officeholders. While these three differ in their policy views, all present themselves as politicians who actually listen to people. 

In 1997 I interviewed a recent congressional candidate named Joe WalshJoe WalshTucker Carlson responds to guest correcting pronunciation of Kamala Harris's name: 'So what?' Bottom line ABC's Whoopi Goldberg to headline Biden fundraiser with Sen. Tammy Duckworth MORE. Walsh had been the Republican nominee for the House district that snaked from the North Side of Chicago up to Evanston and through some of the city’s more liberal suburbs. Popular liberal Democrat Sidney Yates had represented the district since the 1960s; Yates was 87 years old at the time of the election, and this would prove to be his last reelection bid. 

Walsh presented his campaign to me in nonpartisan terms. Yates was simply too old to be effective, he said. Walsh campaigned as a moderate, perhaps even liberal Republican, and he emphasized that he would listen to the voters. He would not be a rubber stamp for the Republican agenda, and he reassured his constituents that he would be active in the community. Walsh spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to bring up Yates’ age in a way that didn’t sound mean. Although he came up short in his campaign, he struck me as being pretty sincere.


The next time I heard about Walsh he had been swept into office as one of the most outspoken and uncivil of the Tea Party freshman class of 2010. You can imagine my surprise. What had happened to the affable, moderate guy I interviewed? Had he had a personality transplant, or had something happened between 1996 and 2010 to make him really mad?

As what passes for the 2020 Republican presidential primary takes shape, the answer to my question has become clear. The Joe Walsh who has emerged to challenge Trump in the primaries has yet another personality.  

Walsh, who was thumped in his 2012 reelection bid and turned to writing newspaper columns and doing talk radio, now presents himself as a conservative who has come to see the harm of his past rhetoric. Walsh agrees, he says, with many of Trump’s policy decisions, but has grown increasingly disgusted with Trump’s behavior, his tweets, his insults and the erratic nature of his presidency. Walsh promises some permutation of the policy stances that got Trump elected, minus the craziness.

The point here is not to criticize Walsh. What the three iterations of Joe Walsh have in common is that they show him to be a politician. He has re-crafted his pitch to fit the times, to fit what he thinks voters want. And in broad terms, he’s probably been correct each time. The only way a Republican could ever have won the Illinois Eighth District was by convincing voters he was a competent guy who would work harder than Yates, and just happened to be using the Republican label. 

The anger thing worked for Walsh in 2010, but it’s hard to know, in retrospect, if Walsh really was that particular angry guy or was just putting on a show. And although it’s hard to imagine him having much success in 2020, if you were going to craft a primary challenge to Trump, it might look a little like Walsh’s, even if Walsh isn’t necessarily the most credible messenger for that pitch. 


Walsh is a politician, as are the other two Republican challengers to Trump. William WeldWilliam (Bill) WeldVermont governor, running for reelection, won't campaign or raise money The Hill's Campaign Report: Amash moves toward Libertarian presidential bid Libertarians view Amash as potential 2020 game changer for party MORE is a Republican who managed to get elected to two terms as governor of Massachusetts — something that requires an ability to work with Democrats, appeal to Democratic voters, and break with Republican orthodoxy while still showing some conservative impulses.  

Mark SanfordMark SanfordCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama The Memo: Can the Never Trumpers succeed? MORE was also once a Republican insurgent (class of 1994) who became a serious policymaker as governor. Sanford overcame the ignominy of his “walking the Appalachian Trail” excuse for his extramarital dalliances to get elected to Congress in 2012 and became a Trump skeptic after 2016. Like Walsh, Weld and Sanford are skilled at changing their politics with the prevailing winds. 

One cannot say the same of Trump. Trump may have epitomized where Republicans and Middle America stood in 2016, but his presidency has shown that he is not a politician in that sense. 

Trump’s presidency has featured a bewildering array of shifts in policy, but no one would say these shifts were strategic efforts to respond to public opinion. Trump never campaigned as a politician, and he certainly hasn’t governed like one.  

This illustrates one fundamental paradox of American politics. Citizens often express disgust with politicians, especially those who’ve made numerous tactical shifts over the course of their careers. You could argue that one reason former Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcGrath reshuffles campaign in home stretch to Senate election Appeals court blocks Hillary Clinton deposition on private email server What Biden must do to keep his lead and win MORE (D-N.Y.) lost the 2016 presidential election is that no one really trusted anything she said — she couldn’t fully escape the legacy of her “slick” husband, who always appeared to be reshaping his presidency to follow opinion polls. At the same time, voters want to be listened to, and we ultimately want our elected officials to do what we want. 

It was not long ago that Republicans nominated an ideologically flexible former Republican governor from Massachusetts for president. None of Trump’s primary challengers possess anywhere near the strengths Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRomney breaks with Trump's criticism of mail-in voting GOP senator draws fire from all sides on Biden, Obama-era probes Why the US should rely more on strategy, not sanctions MORE had as a candidate, but they all practice the same “etch-a-sketch” politics. It is unlikely Trump’s opponents will win, but they might remind us that there is more virtue to that approach than we once realized.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.