Pop quiz: What did Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H. W. Bush in 1992 have in common?
Those incumbent presidents were all seriously challenged — and seriously weakened — by insurgent candidates within their own party. LBJ was so jolted by antiwar Democrat Eugene McCarthy’s strong primary showing that he decided to junk his bid for renomination. Ford barely survived a Republican primary challenge on his right flank, from Ronald Reagan, and lost his re-election race. Carter weathered an acrimonious Democratic challenge on his left flank, from Edward Kennedy, and lost his re-election race. The senior Bush was beaten up badly by a challenge on his right flank, from Pat Buchanan, and lost his re-election race.
That’s my way of saying that former tea-party congressman Joe Walsh — who joined the GOP presidential race on Sunday, as a vehicle for Republican primary voters who are fed up with Donald Trump — should not be dismissed out of hand. No, he won’t wrest the nomination away from Trump; nor will the other Republican challenger, moderate patrician Bill Weld. But Walsh, a former Trump supporter, currently a conservative radio host, is a rhetorical brawler who’s willing to say out loud what he believes many Republicans whisper in private. A challenger on Trump’s right flank is arguably the only person who can make the case to Trump’s base.
And have you heard his case against Trump? Here’s a taste of what he said on Sunday:
“The country is sick of this guy’s tantrum. He’s a child…He’s nuts. He’s erratic. He’s cruel. He stokes bigotry. He’s incompetent. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s a narcissist. Everything he cares about, the only thing he cares about, is Trump. He doesn’t give a damn about America…He’s a bully and he’s a coward, and somebody has to call him out…He’s not capable of being decent. He’s cruel…You give this guy another four years in the White House – right now he is literally tweeting us into a recession. He will tweet us into war.”
So, Joe. Tell us how you really feel.
He also said that Trump hasn’t done anything in the policy realm — “we haven’t built one foot of wall, (he) has increased the debt at a faster clip than Obama” — and it wasn’t entirely clear, from his remarks, whether he wants the border wall to be built, and whether he favors cutting the national debt by slashing federal programs like Medicare and Social Security. But Walsh said, “this is not about issues.” He wants the Republican primaries to be a referendum on Trump’s character. He’s betting that “there are a lot of Republicans who feel like I do” — and urging them, in his first campaign video, to acknowledge “what we all know privately: We’re tired.”
It’s also not entirely clear when Walsh broke with Trump. Granted, he says now that “I helped to create Trump, I’m sorry for that.” But as recently as last year, he defended Trump’s denigration of some non-white nations as “shitholes.” He also assailed immigrants at the Mexican border: “These are not immigrants! These are invaders!” And prior to Trump’s ascent, he had a habit of referring to President Obama as “a Muslim.” (He was asked Sunday whether he believes that now; he replied, “God no.”)
In other words — and what a shock — Walsh is an imperfect messenger. Conservative websites are gleefully compiling his past bombastic statements, and Democrats are stewing about them. But let’s get real: There is no perfect messenger. A disenchanted former Trump supporter is arguably the best possible candidate for grassroots Republicans, and Republican-leaning independents, who’d consider casting protest votes during primary season. Potentially, they could use Walsh’s ballot line to send a much-needed message about what Republicans have lost as a party, and what they hope to regain.
Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark, a conservative anti-Trump website, said Sunday in a Twitter thread that Walsh’s candidacy could be “a path forward” for people on the right who still adhere to civility and American values. She said, “There must be a moment when the spell breaks (and) the rationalizations stop. And there is a clear-eyed reckoning with who we’ve become…Because what Joe Walsh is doing is what we hope every Trump supporter will do, right? (To) say that their support or even silent toleration of Trump’s racism, incompetence, and bullying was wrong, and make an affirmative decision to refuse to allow it to go any further.”
Stuart Stevens, a veteran Republican strategist, favors the more moderate Bill Weld (an ex-Massachusetts governor), but says that, regardless of candidate, “Republicans need an active, robust primary. The 2020 Republican primary is the definitional moment for the Republican Party for a generation or longer. We know who Trump is; the question for Republicans is who are we? Do we believe character doesn’t count, that the national debt is meaningless, that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (a man with American blood on his hands, is a ‘friend,’ and that after decades of arguing that culture defines the soul of America, a president paying off a porn star is of no consequence? A vote in the primary for Trump is to endorse all of the above.”
Joe Walsh will face many obstacles, everything from name recognition (no, this is not the Joe Walsh who played guitar for The Eagles) to the challenge of raising money. But in political time, we’re light years away from Iowa and New Hampshire, and in the meantime the odds are strong that Trump will say or do things that will feed Walsh’s simple message to silent Republicans: “We’re tired of the lies. We’re tired of the drama.”
On Sunday, a Trump 2020 campaign spokesman shrugged off Walsh’s announcement in one word: “Whatever.” My wild guess is that Trump will soon be far more verbose.