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Could a fellow Republican beat Donald Trump in 2020?

There is a plausible scenario in which Trump could be vanquished by someone from his own party, Larry Donnelly writes.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

RIGHT FROM THE beginning of Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency, his most ardent foes have been speculating about the possibility of impeachment.

Indeed, one member of the United States Congress, Texas Democrat Al Green, delivered an impassioned speech urging impeachment on the floor of the House of Representatives. In truth, his was something of an unsanctioned solo run.

The potential grounds for removing the controversial president from office most often cited are the 25th Amendment of the US Constitution and the findings of the ongoing investigations into purported Russian collusion with the Trump campaign to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.

The 25th Amendment outlines the procedure for removing a president when he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. Trump’s harshest critics contend that his behaviour and pronouncements render him thus.

This amendment, enacted in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination and subsequent concerns about succession to the country’s highest office, is arguably not applicable in the current context and, regardless, its invocation now remains far-fetched.

The so-called Russian connection and what related investigations might unearth have fuelled another line of conjecture as to how the president could be impeached. To date, though, notwithstanding comprehensive government and global media pursuit of the truth of what actually transpired while Trump was running for the presidency, no “smoking gun” has been found.

Of course, investigators could discover evidence of high crimes that would make enough Republicans turn on President Trump and vote for his impeachment. That still seems an improbable proposition, however.

Additionally, if the administration continues to conduct the business of the nation as it has, talk of impeachment will persist. But barring something unforeseeable – and God knows, the heretofore unthinkable has become the norm since 20 January 2017 – talk is all it will be.

Accordingly, at this juncture, the good betting is that the US and the rest of the world will have to live with Donald Trump for the next three-and-a-half years. An early question that a few commentators have raised is whether this historically unpopular president may be challenged by someone from his own party in the 2020 Republican primary?

Well, despite his overall low favourability ratings and the near constant stream of invective directed his way from several prominent GOPers, a recent Gallup poll indicates that 78% of registered Republicans approve of his job performance. Moreover, as the two most recent putative insurgencies demonstrate, there are significant institutional and broader obstacles to an intraparty uprising against a sitting president.

History 

In 1980, the legendary Ted Kennedy took on an embattled President Jimmy Carter, espousing traditional left-wing values and rallying a new generation of Democratic activists to his family’s “enduring cause”. He ultimately fell well short.

In 1992, conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan tackled President George HW Bush from the right. While winning 37% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary was an extraordinary showing, Buchanan’s candidacy soon thereafter fizzled, with the Republican establishment weighing in heavily for the first President Bush. (As an aside, the extent to which these two unsuccessful campaigns foretold the current, ongoing battles for the “heart and soul” of each party is remarkable.)

That said, we are in new and in many ways unprecedented territory in 2017.

Trump’s presidency has been as chaotic, unpredictable and frightening as his detractors claimed it would. And in his words and deeds, he has arguably betrayed the struggling men and women in that vast, amorphous entity known as Middle America who placed their sacred trust in him.

John Kasich

Ohio Governor John Kasich, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination last year, has refused to rule out a second bid in 2020, whether the incumbent seeks a second term or not. Kasich has a compelling personal story – he comes from working class roots – and is an attractive politician, combining an overarching conservative philosophy with common sense.

Indeed, his views on healthcare and other government programmes are more palatable to hurting Trump voters in his own and other swing states. Yet he is an unabashed cultural traditionalist, like most of them.

On the flip side, some say he only prevailed in his home state in 2016; that he can be erratic; that purist ideological right-wingers reject his ‘Democrat light’, conciliatory approach; and that his internationalist bent – he is pro-free trade and has backed US military interventions in the past – is out of step with the isolationist impulse that got President Trump elected.

Others allege he lacks the “fire in the belly” necessary to do something so unconventional. And that’s not to mention the president’s largely undiminished popularity with grassroots Republicans, as well as his unique, crossover appeal to Americans who rejected his predecessors, John McCain and Mitt Romney, in 2008 and 2012.

At the same time, it is crucial to remember that Trump only became the GOP standard bearer because 16 other candidates were there to divvy up the vote; that the strength of feeling toward him may be “a mile wide and an inch deep”; that office holders act invariably in their own self interest and would throw this president overboard without a second thought if they thought it would help them win re-election; that the spectre of impeachment is a black cloud looming and won’t go away anytime soon; and that, if Democrats make big gains in the 2018 congressional midterm contests, aggrieved Republicans will want to lay the blame somewhere.

So to answer the question, there is a plausible scenario in which President Trump could be vanquished by someone from his own party. In my view, for a variety of reasons, John Kasich is the optimal challenger. And it would have to be a one-on-one fight.

In the end, even if idealists think policy and substance are what electoral politics should be all about, luck and timing have always been and will always be far more important. To defeat Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential primary, John Kasich – or any other aspirant – would need both on his side, big league.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com. He is also co-director of this weekend’s Kennedy Summer School in New Ross.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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