Who will save the Republican Party? Nikki Haley? John Kasich? Mitt Romney? Ben Sasse? Jeff Flake?
Will one of them contest Donald Trump’s 2020 nomination, triggering a movement that could take down a sitting president from within – as Senator Eugene McCarthy did for the Democrats in 1968 against Lyndon Johnson?
The conventional wisdom says no. The widespread belief is that as embarrassing as Mr. Trump is, he has a stranglehold on his party; that with John McCain’s passing, what’s left of the Republicans are willow trees, members like Senator Lindsey Graham, the charlatan who once called him a “jackass” but now licks his boots.
Is the outlook that depressing? For the time being it appears that way. But changes in the political dynamic are afoot. A growing number of factors conspire against the tabloid President’s durability. An unravelling that gives way to a successful dump Trump insurgency is well possible.
Helping to keep Mr. Trump afloat, helping prevent his low approval ratings from plunging even lower, has been his monopoly power in Washington. That monopoly, courtesy of the loss of his House of Representatives majority, is gone. His opposition now has claws.
The Mueller report is coming. It could change everything. If Mr. Trump doesn’t get tagged with colluding with the Russians on the 2016 election, an obstruction of justice finding is well possible. If not that, then perhaps money laundering. If not that then possible incriminating findings from congressional committees that now have subpoena powers. The notion that Mr. Trump will escape damnatory ramifications is fanciful.
Propping him up has been the roaring economy. His becoming president coincided with an economic surge. But the economy won't continue to roar. It is forecast to soften, maybe flatten.
Mr. Trump’s remarkably loyal populist base is starting to fray. Older white voters, as seen in the midterms, are no longer so supportive. His popularity in the Rust Belt has dropped. His strength in suburban America has wilted.
A bigger problem for him than populists are party traditionalists. In most instances, though not in the case of George F. Will, David Frum, Max Boot and others, they’ve held their noses. They’ll continue to do so as long as they think he can win. But the moment they don’t they will desert him in droves. Rather than any love or admiration for Donald Trump, there is scorn. They’ve watched him hijack the party, deface its traditions, belittle its standard bearers. He’s built a legion of enemies instead of allies and invites an internal reckoning.
Incredibly, he keeps adding to his enemies list. Since the midterm elections, he’s been in a foul mood, as if aware of what awaits him. In Europe, he alienated American veterans by refusing – owing to inclement weather! – a solemn First World War memorial service. He alienated firefighters with an error-ridden tweet blaming the California inferno on bad forest management. He heightened his war with the media. Before the midterms, he angered Ronald Reagan admirers by abandoning one of his landmark achievements in teaming with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War – the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Republicans support Mr. Trump’s work on the judiciary, on tax cuts, on deregulation. They oppose his nationalism, his race-baiting, his protectionism, his fraying of relations with allies. They oppose his hateful partisanship, his bludgeoning of civility, his authoritarian rancour, his narrowing of the party’s base to the degree that it antagonizes African-Americans, minorities, women, youth.
Any challengers to him for the nomination will have ample ammunition. Former Ohio governor John Kasich is a most likely prominent opponent. He’s a pragmatic conservative at a time when pragmatism in the party is in desperately short supply.
Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and United Nations ambassador, would be formidable. She has said she’s not interested. She’s only 46 and can afford to wait. But if Mr. Trump’s support collapses, she could well change her mind. In 1968, McCarthy scored shockingly well against LBJ in the New Hampshire primary. It persuaded Bobby Kennedy to enter the race.
Serious challenges to sitting presidents for a party nomination are rare. But you don’t get many moments more rare in American politics than a President like today’s.
Everybody’s talking about the exceptional Democratic Party race about to unfold. There could be two dozen contenders. Not to be discounted is the chance of a hair-raising Republican confrontation. Too many party members are too disgusted with Donald Trump to let the moment pass.