No sitting president, at least in the modern era where primaries chiefly determine who the party nominee is, has failed to win the nomination after a challenger presented themselves. However, their campaign has usually been crippled enough so they end up losing the general election.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford faced a tough battle against California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Ford won the nomination and lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter.
Four years later, President Carter was challenged by liberal scion Sen. Ted Kennedy. Carter survived but lost the election to Ronald Reagan.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush faced a challenge from former Nixon speechwriter and pundit Pat Buchanan. Even though he was never a threat, Buchanan acquitted himself better than most people would have thought and then gave his famously polarizing “culture war” speech at the GOP convention. Bush would lose the election to Bill Clinton.
All of which is to say that if you want a primary challenger to a sitting president — and if you’re somewhat informed about history — this means that at some level, you want that president to lose the general election.
Bill Kristol, NeverTrump gadfly and former publisher of The Weekly Standard, knows his history. I’ve been informed, somewhat surprisingly, that Anthony Scaramucci is a Harvard Law graduate. This means he has probably, at some point, read a book that has some political history in it.
Both of them really don’t like Donald Trump right now, and it appears both of them want to field a candidate who, if history holds true, will end up ensuring Trump’s defeat.
Kristol told CNBC via text message that he’s been in contact with the former White House communications director — who has recently gone rogue and called the president a nuclear disaster, saying that he would support a different Republican at the top of the ticket in 2020 — and that they’re looking toward putting up a candidate to challenge Trump.
“Asked whether he has spoken to Scaramucci about trying to find another presidential candidate to replace Trump on the top of the GOP ticket next year, Kristol said: ‘Yup.’
“But Kristol, who has been critical of Scaramucci in the past, wouldn’t go much further than that when describing his interactions with the former Trump surrogate.
“‘Have chatted with him, but working with him would be an exaggeration,’ Kristol explained. He declined to give further details on their conversation, which he characterized as private.”
However, Kristol’s texts give some context to remarks Scaramucci has made in interviews.
“The overwhelming flood of texts, phone conversations and support last night from people that are actually inside the White House, up on Capitol Hill, former elected officials, current people in position of power, current elected officials, is truly staggering,” Scaramucci told CNN.
This came after Scaramucci conducted a phone interview with Axios in which he made the nuclear disaster remark and said Trump may need to be replaced on the ticket.
“We are now in the early episodes of ‘Chernobyl’ on HBO, where the reactor is melting down and the apparatchiks are trying to figure out whether to cover it up or start the clean-up process,” Scaramucci said.
“A couple more weeks like this and ‘country over party’ is going to require the Republicans to replace the top of the ticket in 2020.”
This ended in a predictable Twitter fight with the president. Scaramucci talking about all the support he’s getting in terms of foisting another Republican candidate upon the electorate has all of the credibility of … well, Anthony Scaramucci talking about all the support he’s getting in terms of foisting another Republican candidate upon the electorate.
So consider this a mea culpa. Scaramucci is a figure of fun and a man of diminishing returns when it comes to political power. Bill Kristol is also a man of diminishing returns in that power department, although perhaps not as much as we all would have hoped. He’s also deadly serious when it comes to this sort of thing, and that’s a real problem for both Trump and the Republicans.
Kristol tried to find literally anyone to run against Trump as a third-party candidate back in 2016. This year, he’s tried to use his Defending Democracy Together non-profit to find someone with a profile to challenge Trump, according to the Washington Examiner.
It would be a curious thing to see Kristol — a man as mild-mannered, inoffensive and uninteresting as buttered noodles — partnering with Scaramucci, a guy who spent only 11 days as White House communications director, in part because of a profoundly vulgar interview he gave.
Scaramucci described his preferred candidate thusly: “We need an Arya Stark, OK? We gotta take this guy out because this is like the Night King.”
But then, there seems to be the very real possibility these aren’t just the two guys behind it. Like zombies, it seems the NeverTrumpers are rising from their graves, desperate to reassert their hold over the party.
So, who will they dredge up to try and spoil Trump’s chances?
“Three of [Kristol’s] preferred candidates — Sen. Ben Sasse, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan — have all said they’re not going to run against Trump,” CNBC reported.
“Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who lost to Trump in the 2016 GOP primary, has said he doesn’t currently see a path of defeating a president that has a stranglehold on his party. A recent Gallup poll shows that 88% of Republican voters approve of the president.”
Surely someone must be out there who can damage Trump without any real possibility of winning the GOP nomination.
My guess is that Kristol, Scaramucci and Co. will eventually come up with someone to run against Trump. It’ll be just like 2016. That’s when Kristol, who failed to find anyone solid to take the bait to run against Trump, ended up giving lukewarm backing to the Evan McMullin campaign, such as it was.
There have been rumors Kristol himself will run in 2020. Then again, buttered noodles tend not to draw huge campaign crowds.
Another theoretical candidate might be Justin Amash, the libertarian-leaning Michigan representative who very publicly left the Republican Party earlier this year and called for Trump’s impeachment. Wonks, Reason Magazine readers and Amash’s family members may be familiar with Amash, but outside of that, he has zero name recognition.
As for the other candidates who’ve said no, maybe you can get Scaramucci to give them that Arya Stark pep talk. After all, the Mooch has a way with words. Just ask Ryan Lizza.
The point is that, unfortunately, there’s a group of moderately powerful conservative figures who want to take down Donald Trump. They also know the way to do that is to get someone — anyone — who can credibly run against the president during the primaries.
Will they wrest the GOP nomination from Trump? No. That’s arguably not the point. If Trump won’t play by the establishment rules, the establishment will happily take part in mutually assured destruction at the ballot box. Primarying a sitting president not only divides the party, but it also forces the incumbent to use time and resources fighting back the challenge. We’ve seen where that leads.
What Kristol, Scaramucci and whoever else they have onboard are doing is helping elect a Democrat. They just don’t want to come out and say it.
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