A full-fledged attack is no way to defeat Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican primary. That’s because the next presidential race will more closely resemble the other party’s primary from 16 years ago than the GOP contest from eight years ago.
The 45th president finally has an opponent for the Republican presidential nomination—almost officially, anyway.
Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor, is set to formally announce on Feb. 15. There will, of course, be more—namely Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who is leading Trump in polls in key states.
Right now, at least, Haley and anyone else that gets into the race seems like an afterthought for a contest that will be between Donald Trump and DeSantis. Maybe that will change over the next year as the contenders are exposed to the bright lights of a presidential campaign.
Political commentator Matthew Continetti says Republicans seem destined for a rewind of 2016. That’s when GOP candidates refrained from attacking Donald Trump, presuming he’d get bored and drop out before voting began.
“Trump also benefits from the same dynamics that helped him in 2016: His opponents think he will just disappear, a multi-candidate primary gives him an edge, and no Republican wants to attack him directly,” Continetti writes in the Washington Free Beacon.
“As happened seven years ago, Republicans are avoiding Trump either because they believe he will pack up and go home or because they are afraid of incurring his wrath and the animosity of his most devoted supporters,” Continetti continued. “They are falling back into formation as a circular firing squad that hurts everybody but the former president.”
That obviously didn’t work in 2016.
However, 2024 poses a different dynamic than 2016. The 2024 Republican primary is in many ways a lot more like the 2008 Democratic primary.
Trump is the frontrunner now with a degree of inevitability. In 2016, he was the ultimate outsider fighting the Washington swamp machine. There was nothing inevitable about his improbable campaign.
In 2024, maybe too many Republicans have what That Atlantic’s McKay Coppins called “magical thinking,” publicly praising Trump and privately wishing he would vanish. But the point of the piece was Trump is the leading candidate for his party’s presidential nomination.
And he is.
Donald Trump 2024 Meets Hillary Clinton from 2008?
Trump is to 2024 what Hillary Clinton was to 2008—a candidate seen as fundamentally flawed with trouble appealing to swing voters, and maybe not a safe bet for a general election campaign.
Of course, we know that Obama beat the unlikable but inevitable Hillary. Clinton won the nomination eight years later, but only because she essentially cleared the field of any viable candidates.
What’s important about the comparison is that Obama didn’t rough Hillary up all that much, other than the infamous “likeable enough” gaffe. When she aggressively attacked him with a blistering, “shame on you, Barack Obama” speech, it backfired. Obama was hopey-changey, and would subtly cast Clinton as the status quo candidate, but rarely in an aggressive fashion.
Also comparable to Trump, in 2008, there was an undercurrent, even among partisan Democrat voters that defended Bill Clinton through eight years of scandals, of “do we really want to deal with all that again.”
Sure, different dynamics existed in 2008 that don’t in 2024. The 2008 Democrat contest was historic since either the first woman or first African American would be the standard bearer. For a party obsessed with identity politics, that loves to smear opponents as “sexist” and “racisit,” there were some handcuffs on both.
By contrast, we’re likely to see a white guy vs. an orange guy in the 2024 GOP primary.
The point is, it’s really doubtful anyone can out-attack Trump and could likely go down trying. Recall those 2015 debates, low polling candidates such as Bobby Jindal and Rand Paul attacked him out of the gate. Jeb Bush attempted to go toe-to-toe with him in the center of the stage. Trump claimed he “punched back” after being attacked. But Trump was a consummate entertainer known for trash talk on The Apprentice and at WrestleMania. So, no one was any match for him.
Trump has begun punching DeSantis unprovoked. The Florida governor hasn’t yet punched back—other than the most subtle ways, such as speaking about how Florida was a free state during the COVID-19 lockdown. DeSantis might be smart to keep that up. At some juncture, he’ll have to respond to Trump as needed. But for the most part, just let Trump punch himself out, sort of a rope-a-dope strategy.
Then like Obama, DeSantis could bask in the glory of being the fresh face his party – that is ready to move on — is waiting for.
Barbara Joanna Lucas is a writer and researcher in Northern Virginia. She has been a healthcare professional, political blogger, is a proud dog mom, and news junkie. Follow her on Twitter @BasiaJL.