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Outsiders vs. Insiders: Are conservatives destined for Reagan vs. Ford part two in 2020?

Ever since Donald Trump all-but secured the Republican nomination for president (after the Indiana primary in May of last year) there’s been a great deal of speculation as to when the inevitable challenge to his leadership of the GOP would materialize.

Most of the anti-Trump conjecture originated from establishment figures such as John Kasich, John McCain and Jeb Bush, people who never fully accepted Trump as a legitimate politician and have sniped and criticized Reagan Ford 1976him from the sidelines as the New York outsider dove in and battled the reptile-infested political swamp in Washington DC.

To predict someone from the elite circles of the party will make a high-profile primary challenge to Trump in 2020 is not only within the logical realm of possibility -- it’s almost likely to happen. Certainly such an effort would be well supported and financed by Trump’s multitude of enemies inside and outside the party.

But could Trump possibly face opposition from a conservative competitor as well? Some people talk as though it’s destined to take place.

Craig Shirley and Scott Mauer wrote at Real Clear Politics, “President Trump seems to be heading in the direction of Gerald Ford. He is going leftward by negotiating with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi instead of his own party’s leadership. It was met with great fanfare by the liberal media when he agreed to increase the debt limit. Several days later, he reassured DACA recipients that everything will work out to their favor – at the behest of Nancy Pelosi...

“If Donald Trump is destined to becoming the next Gerald Ford, who will be the conservative primary opponent running to his right? What will this mean for 2020? Will someone emerge to go after an unclear, messy, moderate incumbent in the primaries? It would seem so. Conservatives will surely want a hard-hitting and principled candidate who understands classic conservative economics, politics, and the tenets of Federalism.”

Radio host Mark Levin has been similarly critical of Trump’s political inconsistencies, so it isn’t just Shirley and Mauer making the challenge-from-the-right argument.

Since Shirley is perhaps the preeminent authority on the extraordinary life of Ronald Reagan it’s understandable how he might see parallels between what’s happening with Trump today and the internal party civil war (between American conservativism’s greatest icon and the ultimate establishmentarian of his time, Gerald Ford) that took place over forty years ago.

And while it’s true Trump has been making a number of debatable political moves of late it’s probably a little early to foresee a certain conservative primary challenge to his leadership of the GOP in 2020. Trump may have earned the ire of diehard conservatives who felt the sting of his apparent backtracking on immigration a couple weeks ago but by no means is it obvious that he has morphed into a knee-jerk reactionary Democrat.

Many (myself included) surmised Trump’s overtures to the opposition party were really a feint to throw the media dogs off his scent rather than signaling a permanent exodus to join the enemy’s black hooded thugs. Trump is far too tactical and clever to be so open about his true intentions; he’s also reiterated time and again “I will not let you down” to his base. All the media and liberal adoration in the world isn’t going to lure Trump away from his desire to please the crowds.

That’s what a populist does; when you stop satisfying people you become un-popular. If you don’t believe it, ask George W. Bush.

It just doesn’t make sense to believe otherwise in Trump’s case. The president may be no Ronald Reagan but he certainly doesn’t appear to be a Gerald Ford either. After the fiasco with Richard Nixon in the mid-70’s the GOP establishment took full control of the party and of Ford’s governing direction. There’s little to no chance of something similar occurring with Donald Trump.

Trump remains ever distrustful of the entrenched ruling class in Washington. He’s been perhaps too tolerant of keeping Obama holdovers employed in the highest reaches of the federal bureaucracy but when Trump has had the opportunity to appoint someone, he’s usually turned to worthy conservatives.

It’s also hard to envision how one of the high-profile conservative leaders in Congress (or governors) would become so upset with Trump that they’d make what would likely amount to a suicidal run to unseat him on the 2020 ballot. Such a campaign would need to begin sometime soon, too, otherwise there wouldn’t be sufficient time to organize, fundraise, hire a staff, etc.

And who would it be? Ted Cruz? Mike Lee? Ben Sasse (there isn’t anyone on the House side who would be prominent enough to make it work)? The former two would be highly unlikely to challenge Trump for a number of reasons. Cruz is currently preoccupied with winning reelection next year and Lee has never seemed interested in a run for the top White House job.

Of the group Sasse would be most likely to try it, but again, where would his base of support come from? The conservative/populist grassroots chose Trump precisely because he was seen as having the best shot at breaking up the system, an impression that is not likely to fade no matter what takes place in the next couple years.

Practically speaking, there aren’t enough voters to fuel the fires of change in the GOP away from Trump at this point.

One name who could conceivably attempt it just to make a statement is Senator Rand Paul. Paul’s family’s political history would lend itself to running an outsider-from-the-inside-type campaign that would highlight Trump’s policy apostasies and could draw a reasonable amount of support from libertarian conservatives and those who have never thought Trump was conservative enough.

Further, the Kentucky senator has been plenty vocal lately in questioning his party’s turn away from conservatism. In a piece titled “Remember When Republicans Were Conservative?Paul wrote last week in The Daily Caller, “Our budget needs balancing.  Our programs need reform.  Our spending ourselves into debt needs to end.

“With this next three months, conservatives, and really all Republicans, need to get together and act.  We need to insist that there will be no debt ceiling increase the next time if we aren’t heard, and if reforms aren’t enacted.

“I plan to start right now — not wait until December.  Last week, I met with conservative fighters in both the House and Senate to put together a coalition that says, ‘Stop.’  No more spending without real reforms.”

It’s clear Paul intends to follow through on his principles and could become one of Trump’s loudest Republican critics if the president carries out his threat to approach the Democrats for additional help in passing legislation under the guise of doing anything to get the process moving.

It’s also well-known Paul was a leading conservative opponent of compromise on the repeal and replacement of Obamacare which has many folks questioning his motivations. Most principled conservatives agree wholeheartedly with Paul’s words and positions but at some point politics does become the art of the possible. There’s a difference between using one’s position outside the majority to take a stand (as Ted Cruz did against Obamacare in 2013), but once you’re in the governing faction it’s necessary to bend a bit at times.

In the end I don’t believe Paul would pursue such a run against Trump. He’s not his dad and circumstances are quite different than when Reagan challenged Ford in 1976 and even when “pitchfork” Pat Buchanan campaigned against George H.W. Bush from the right in 1992. Bush was Reagan’s VP, the establishment had retaken control of the GOP and Buchanan didn’t have enough of a base to knock off the elder Bush.

Perhaps most importantly, the conservative Republican voters weren’t ready to toss out Bush. They won’t be prepared to remove Trump at the ballot box either.

The biggest reason is Trump is by and large keeping his promises. Even the establishment is now hesitant to criticize his methodology.

Joel Gehrke reported in the Washington Examiner, “President Trump's sharp criticism of NATO succeeded in rattling ‘the complacency’ of European allies and producing foreign policy dividends, according to former rival Jeb Bush…

“’In relates to NATO, look, here's a place where the rhetoric actually has been helpful,’ Bush said during a foreign policy discussion hosted by United Against Nuclear Iran.

“’Granted, the fact that he didn't embrace NATO to begin with, but you're starting to see European countries increase their defense budgets. ... From time to time, it's okay to shake up the complacency.’”

One wonders whether Jeb now believes it was okay to shake up the GOP’s “complacency” last year when conservatives and populists roundly rejected the status quo in favor of the politically unrefined Donald Trump. Trump doesn’t talk like a typical politician and isn’t the least bit afraid to step on foreign toes – like those of NATO leaders – to advance his America First policies.

Trump’s tough rhetoric is not only popular with Americans in general it’s extremely well received by conservatives. We still have a long way to go until 2020, but for right now it’s hard to fathom how the outsider president would face a conservative primary challenger after one term.

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