Off and Running

By Rafael Hoffman

Hardly a week had passed after the close of mid-term elections and former President Donald Trump’s long-anticipated presidential run was launched at an event held at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Mr. Trump gave an hour-long address to an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, laying out a case that he is the best solution to save what he presented as a nation in decline and peril under the Biden administration.

The campaign is unique in modern American politics. The only President to serve non-continuous terms was Grover Cleveland, who was defeated after his first term in 1888 but won again in 1892. The last former President to attempt a return to the White House after leaving it was Theodore Roosevelt, who ran a failed campaign in the 1912 election.

The baggage of several scandals that dogged Mr. Trump’s presidency and the Capitol Riot — which many Americans hold him responsible for — sets his ambitions apart as well. The timing of the announcement, off the heels of a disappointing show by many congressional and gubernatorial candidates that received Mr. Trump’s backing, and with two whole years before the Presidential election, stands out as well.

To discuss Mr. Trump’s historic attempt and its implications for the Republican Party and American politics, Hamodia spoke with Sam Abrams, professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and senior fellow at the America Enterprise Institute.

Professor Sam Abrams

What was your assessment of the case made Donald Trump made in his launch speech?

It’s a little hard to say because President Trump was all over the map. There was a hope among many on the right that this would be a focused, buttoned- up speech. Trump did review some of his accomplishments and drew contrasts between his administration and America under Biden. But he also became quite divisive, and said some pretty critical things about other people including some in his own party.

Right now, at least as far as I can tell, and as the 2022 election results show, the country does not have a whole lot of patience for that type of divisiveness. They’re looking to move on. That doesn’t mean politics has to be all peace and love; that’s not what voters are looking for either. But trying to settle old scores is not going to play well with the Republican Party right now.

You saw, after the announcement, a lot of anti-Trump sentiment from conservative circles saying that he should not be the face of the party. Quite a few members of Congress and big donors are trying to keep their distance. I think that had he given a stronger speech that presented a more organized set of policies, he would have avoided some of that.

If the Trump campaign can isolate what it feels is a winning message, do you think Mr. Trump can stay on that message?

It’s not clear that they are close to deciding what that message would be because President Trump jumped around topically from America’s global prowess to ending foreign wars; he spoke about Ukraine and President Xi and U.S.-China relations. He spoke about Congressional term limits and domestic policy; you name it, it was there. Trump was quick to point to his economic success and his capacity as an effective domestic leader.

One thing that I think President Trump doesn’t talk enough about, and that he doesn’t get enough credit for, is getting the pandemic under control and getting a vaccine developed as fast as he did. I wish he took more credit for it and if you think about it, Operation Warp Speed’s success was pretty remarkable. It’s a major achievement that he’s underselling.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in support of the campaign of Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance at Wright Bros. Aero Inc. at Dayton International Airport on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in Vandalia, Ohio. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

What does such an early announcement accomplish — does it clear the field?

According to reports, many of his own advisors were pushing for him to wait. Right now, the fact that his candidates like Oz in Pennsylvania’s Senate race and Lake in the Arizona Governor’s race losing is very fresh in people’s minds. There are races that were very close and that could have been flipped if the candidates that Trump chased out of the race ran. For him to announce a presidential run when much of the public is pinning him for those losses and for Republicans not winning the Senate and just squeaking by in the House is bizarre. These losses are only reinforcing the image that most people have of him as the person who couldn’t win the last presidential election.

The primaries are more than a year away. Declaring this early puts him in the spotlight for two years before the general election and opens Trump up to so much public scrutiny. It would have made more sense for him to keep the possibility of a run out there, make statements, raise money, and see how the political map emerges over the coming months. That would not have made him any less formidable of a candidate when he would declare. That would have allowed him to see where DeSantis and Youngkin and others are going. Right now, DeSantis looks very strong, but as a political scientist, I can tell you that the ground can literally change in a week. The present moment is not favorable for Trump, but that could change and why not wait and see?

In terms of clearing the field, I don’t think it does that either. You have a long road here. I think Trump putting himself out there so early may embolden challengers because now they have a clear target.

Do you think announcing so far ahead of primaries opens Mr. Trump up to more risk of allowing voters to tire of him early and for another candidate to come in with more excitement later?

I think he’s running an enormous risk of fatigue. Two years is a very long time, we were still in COVID lockdown two years ago. There’s a lot going on in the Republican Party and the political world at large that’s getting figured out now. We don’t know who the Speaker of the House is going to be yet. Republicans need to put together a legislative platform. Trump might think that he can have more influence on that as a candidate, but I still think the timing he chose works against him.

In the meantime, other potential challengers can wait things out and see where Trump’s campaign and the political landscape goes before making final decisions. They’re all raising money anyway so there’s no reason to rush.

Does Mr. Trump’s publicly sparing with Governor Ron DeSantis and others help or hurt his primary bid?

I’m not so sure it’s going to help right now. If DeSantis keeps on ignoring it, that won’t move the dial much. He’s in a much stronger position now. DeSantis has been an effective governor in terms of basic governance, he’s grown the party and been inclusive of groups traditionally not part of the GOP, and he’s been very successful on culture issues that matter to the GOP base as well. He’s levelheaded but isn’t afraid to push back against the progressive woke ideology and Florida, by and large, seems to be with him. For Trump to go after him with name calling won’t necessarily work because DeSantis has a record to run on and a lot of very large powerful GOP donors have already flocked to him. I think the same goes for Glenn Youngkin. He has a different style than DeSantis, but he’s also carved out support on his own and name calling may not hurt him.

Incumbent Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters at an election night party after winning his race for reelection in Tampa, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Do you think the GOP elites will try to coalesce around a candidate that could beat Mr. Trump in the primary rather than allowing a large field to emerge that the former President could more easily dominate?

Party elites don’t have the power they used to. In the old days, it may not have been a closed system, but they were nominating viable candidates that could work within the Washington’s status quo. But if we look at the last handful of presidential candidates, they all ran as outsiders and, once they won the nomination, they continue to cultivate that image. Obama was in the second year of his first term in the Senate when he ran. George W. Bush had his family name behind him, but he ran as a Texas Governor that was not part of Washington. That does a lot to undercut the power that parties once had. Trump’s selling point was that he was a businessman who could handle complex situations and was going to “drain the swamp.” In that environment, who the party elites favor matters much less.

I don’t think the elites have the capacity to organize and control the nomination process right now, due to other factors as well. We have a media and a way of speaking to the world that doesn’t involve needing their money or their support to get a candidate’s message out. Anybody can tweet or put something out on social media and it can get press coverage, which is basically millions of dollars of free advertising. Against that reality, the party elites lost their hold. AOC in New York City was a vivid demonstration of that power.

Now, whether the potential challengers themselves can agree on who should be the candidate and for others to stay out of the race is another question. That might work, but the party is still fractured in many ways, and you have some very different personalities in the mix. Cruz is one of the smartest most savvy people in Washington and he’s very ambitious, but to my mind, he doesn’t have the personality for a presidential run. Pence has a lot to offer, but he’s a quiet operator and I don’t see him being a strong candidate either. The anti-Trump wing like Larry Hogan and Liz Cheney have little reasonable shot at the nomination as of today. The person who could possibly get the level of support to take on Trump effectively right now looks like DeSantis.

Should Mr. Trump win the GOP nomination, do you think he has a reasonable chance of winning nationally in the general election?

Absolutely. There’s no reason that he couldn’t. The country remains a right-of-center nation, not a left-of-center nation. Polling and electoral results prove that. If Trump moderates himself on some issues, and he might be able to, he could win.

A lot depends on what kind of crazy stuff Democrats are backing, how woke they go. If you look at this last election and realize that in deep blue New York, five congressional districts flipped from Democrat to Republican because voters didn’t like what Kathy Hochul and her party are doing. Lee Zeldin came within inches of wining the Governor’s race and even though he lost, he pulled some down-ticket Republicans to victory.

If Democrats keep pushing extreme progressive positions, and the economy continues to crater, and costs keep rising, Trump could have a good chance.

A lot also depends on who the Democrats nominate. If Trump runs against Biden, that might make his chances even better. Trump’s not young either, but he has an electric charisma and pull on many. Who the Democrats would put up if not Biden is not clear, especially since I think they realize that Harris is not a strong candidate.

Voting booths in Kansas City, MI (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Both parties have trouble now with the center of the country and either of them moderating could help win national elections. But the bottom line is that once the choice is a Democrat, carrying the problems of today’s Democratic party against Trump, Trump could win.

What message do you think GOP primary voters are looking for in a candidate?

It might sound strange in today’s political world, but I think it’s a message of hope and unity. That’s what was at the core of what Obama ran on; that’s what was effective with Ronald Reagan. There’s a desire for real change. The Republican base has questions about people’s right to live the way they want to live, questions about government encroachment, the right to worship the way you want, to have a shot at economic prosperity. Those are the ideas that will win people over.

How do primary voters differ from general election voters?

The problem is that primary voters are very extreme. That, in many respects, is what’s hurting the Republicans’ chances in the general election, because the primary voters are the ones with strong opinions on Dobbs, guns, and the type of positions that turn off moderate voters in the general election. Many of the people who would turn out in the primary see Trump as the man who’s going to stand up for their status in America and they want him to be very combative against what they see as elites, but they represent a very small minority of Americans.

This was an issue for a long time, but it used to be fairly common for candidates to stake out positions that were further left or right during the primary and then, after they won the nomination, shift to the center. It worked pretty consistently until the mid-’90s. To break that pattern, you’re going to need a “profiles in courage” moment where a candidate says, “Thank you for the nomination, but I am going to have to change some aspects of my platform if this campaign is going to be viable in the general election.”

Primary voters who are loyal to Trump might have a sway in the general election even if he is not the candidate. They might decide to stay home and not vote for the Republican nominee, like we saw on the Democrat side when a lot of Sanders supporters didn’t come out for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

How do you view the historic significance of a former President running for the office again, something only achieved by Grover Cleveland over 120 years ago?

It’s a pretty odd dynamic and we don’t have any model of it in the modern era. It’s also new territory that we have such old candidates. A theoretical Trump-Biden matchup has two candidates that will be in their 80s when they would serve their terms.

Losing and then running again takes a certain amount of hubris, but Trump doesn’t believe that he lost, so I guess that changes things in an odd way. Other Presidents, whether they served one or two terms, kept their distance from day-to-day politics after they left office. They built foundations and exercised soft power, but it never looked like that was Trump’s plan.

What are your closing thoughts on the current political scene?

It’s going to be a very messy few years ahead of us and that’s bad news. There are serious issues to deal with: Russia, China, the U.S. economy, immigration, and so on. There’s a lot of uncertainty in America now.

It’s taking a toll on mental health and behaviors in younger people. The younger generation did not grow up with respectable people in leadership who modeled responsible behavior. This is not just about Donald Trump. In a much different way, Obama was also destabilizing. He allowed for a lot of America’s red lines to get crossed internationally without responding, which emboldened a lot of our enemies and made the country look weak. Quite a few of his comments on race were fairly divisive. You have to ask, how much more chaos and instability can the country take? But if someone takes the position that we are a great nation, tells the story of how we are more alike than different and we are the nation of opportunity and freedom, we have a shot. We need to reject the divisiveness of identity politics and talk about our shared story as a nation. n

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