WASHINGTON – Republicans who are thinking about opposing President Trump in the 2020 primaries are facing the hardest of political choices.
What are the handholds for a challenger to Trump? Economic conservatives are generally happy with the 2017 tax cut. Social conservatives are generally satisfied with Trump’s judicial nominees. Foreign policy conservatives are generally not pleased with Trump’s sabotage of alliances. But the Republican foreign policy establishment was opposed to Trump the last time around and it mattered not at all.
So why undertake this difficult task?
First, no political moment is permanent. After a particularly damaging new administration scandal or a severe economic downturn, a hopeless quest might suddenly seem like remarkable political foresight. Or not. But no alternative to Trump can benefit from changing circumstances if he or she doesn’t run in the first place.
Second, the Robert Mueller report and a string of congressional investigations could destabilize Trump’s personality in escalating and disturbing ways. The president could move against important institutions in a manner that causes a portion of the Republican electorate to reconsider its support. I am not holding my breath, but who could judge this impossible?
The Republican case against Trump is not mainly about policy or ideology. It is not about his ignorance and refusal to learn and improve at his job. The main Republican argument against Trump is this: He is a person of horrible character who corrupts everyone around him, undermines essential social standards and is branding his party with an image of bigotry that will last a generation.
The problem with Democrats making this argument about Trump’s character is simple. To abandon the president in favor of a Democrat, Republican voters are forced, not just to value public character, but to value public character above conservative economic policy and above the appointment of conservative judges. And not many Republicans place that much weight on matters of character. They will take Trump plus Justice Brett Kavanaugh over any Democrat of unimpeachable integrity. If, however, any of the serious Republican prospects run against Trump, Republican primary voters will face the challenge: Why not conservative policy and public character?
This is the main reason that some Republican must run. There needs to be an alternative focus of intellectual energy and moral leadership in America’s party of the right. This is what a presidential campaign – successful or not – can accomplish.
To those who say it is useless to protest the direction of the GOP, a campaign says: “Well, I protest anyway.” To those who say that traditional conservatism is a lost cause, it represents the answer: “Not to me.” To those who claim that the effort can’t succeed, it says: “Let’s deserve success first, then see where honorable effort leads us.”
History has an honor roll of those who show seemingly futile courage. Someone must be offended when national ideals are debased by cruelty and corruption. Someone must be willing to defy good political sense in a great political cause.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.