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Byron York Is Just Asking Questions

With the Democratic party turning left, what’s a conservative with serious reservations about President Trump supposed to do?
February 23, 2019
Byron York Is Just Asking Questions
(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Byron York’s piece in the Washington Examiner on Wednesday posed a fair question: With the Democratic party turning left, what’s a conservative with serious reservations about President Trump supposed to do?

Specifically, York referenced a recent piece I wrote for the Washington Post about how a Republican could (and I believe should) challenge President Trump in the primaries. York’s complaint with the idea of a primary challenge is that it could weaken Trump and make it easier for a Green-New-Deal-loving, socialist-sympathizing Democratic candidate to win.

York notes that historically presidents who draw primary challenges go on to lose in the general election. He assumes that by encouraging a primary challenge, “Never Trumpers” are intent on ensuring a Trump loss, regardless of which Democrat would wind up in the White House.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is an incorrect assessment of my motives.

I would have been happy to have explained this to York, but he did not ask me for comment. So instead I’ll put it all down here.

For starters, why does York believe that primary challenges are causal, rather than correlative? It seems at least possible that the relationship between primary challenges and general election losses goes in the other direction: Incumbents who are so weak as to invite primary challengers, are generally weak enough to lose their reelection campaigns. It’s not that the primary challenge causes the weakness; it’s that the weakness is a provocation for challengers.

President Trump is a weak general election candidate by almost any measure. If his lackluster approval numbers don’t convince you, because you don’t trust the polls, then look at the beating House Republicans took in 2018, in which many previously Republican voters (especially women and suburbanites) opted to vote for Democrats.

And while the majority of Republicans might ultimately support Trump, in survey after survey, we see significant interest from Republican voters in an alternative to Trump in 2020. York argues that these polls are misleading:

At the moment, such polls are the “Never Trumpers” best case for a challenge. But there are doubts about whether the surveys really say much, because voters generally don’t like to tell pollsters that their minds are closed a year before an election. “At this early point in any campaign, people are not going to shut their minds,” said Republican pollster David Winston in a recent conversation. “They just don’t do that. There’s a huge difference between people saying they’re thinking through things and how they behave. My guess is those polls are probably true, but that’s because the electorate is trying to be thoughtful.”

But even if the sentiments expressed in the polls are misleading, the fact of their existence is highly abnormal. In 2011, masses of Democrats weren’t saying that they were open to an alternative to President Obama. The same went for Reagan in 1983, Clinton in 1995, and George W. Bush in 2003. Having large percentages of partisans say they wish their incumbent president would be challenged (or not seek reelection) is not something you normally see in the course of successful reelection campaigns. That doesn’t mean that 40 percent of Republicans will abandon Trump in 2020 in favor of the Democratic nominee. But it surely means something.

And in the meantime, if these Republican voters are interested in having a choice, why shouldn’t they have one? The answer, of course, is status quo bias. Republican elites always want to deny Republican voters the benefits of competition and the free exchange of ideas because they have a vested interest in the status quo. But this sort of competition can be enormously helpful. Remember: The Republican party wanted to quash the primary challenge in 1976, but it ultimately resulted in the birth of the Reagan Revolution.

Trump defenders often like to say that history did not begin in 2016. And that’s true. But by the same token, history will not end in 2020. The effects of a primary challenge to Trump, and Trump’s ultimate victory or loss, will continue to ripple out into the future. Some of those effects might be congenial to conservatism. Some of them might not. But you cannot simply say, as York seems to, that any loss for any Republican, anywhere, will forever be a net loss to conservatism.

That’s not the way politics works.

The reason I think a primary challenge would be a net good is because I believe that Trump is weak and that his weakness is likely to hurt both the Republican party and the cause of conservatism in the long run. I want the Republican party to have a future after Trump and I think that the best way to achieve that is for a serious conservative to lay the foundation for a post-Trump GOP that preserves conservatism and can compete electorally now, as part of a primary campaign.

Because as things stand, the voting coalition assembled by President Trump is not going to be viable for much longer.

Trump’s 2016 election was built around non-college-educated, white voters over the age of 65. This is not a growth stock. And according to an analysis of the 2018 election by the Pew Research Center, “majorities of voters ages 18 to 29 (67 percent) and 30 to 44 (58 percent) favored the Democratic candidate.”

It used to be a truism that younger voters always trended liberal, but then grew more conservative as they got older. As pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson has noted, that truism is no longer accurate: younger voters aren’t getting more conservative with age and they’re particularly antagonistic toward this incarnation of the Republican party. The Trump presidency could well cost the GOP an entire generation of voters.

Or, to put it another way: Yes, there have been some conservative policy gains under Trump. No one denies this. But if the price of those gains is a Democratic party so ideologically radicalized and electorally empowered that it winds up handing unified control of government to someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will those gains have been, on balance, worth it?

I would argue, no.

It is precisely because I am a conservative, and will continue being one regardless of what cliff the GOP follows Trump over, that I care about the future of the Republican party. It is because I reject far-left policies that I want Republican ideas taken seriously—not just for the next two or six years but for the next 20 years. I want a Republican party my children will want to join.

York wants to create a boogieman out of “Never Trumpers” and establish that, if Trump loses reelection, then they will have been the cause of his downfall. It’s a strange position for York to be in, since his publication frequently makes the case that Trump has been one of the most successful first-term presidents, ever. If that were true, then Trump would have nothing to worry about: Historically speaking, successful presidents tend to be reelected by comfortable margins.

The fact that York is already trying to pin a possible Trump loss on someone other than President Trump probably means something, too.

York seems to think that conservatives ought to pretend that the president isn’t weak, support and apologize for him as needed, hope for the best, and wait for the backlash.

I think we ought to start steering our party back on course now.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.