There wasn’t much public-opinion research available in 1964, so you’ll have to take it on the testimony of us old folks that the Republican Party that nominated Barry Goldwater was more than a little pessimistic about his chances of victory. Yeah, there was some excitement about the possibility that Goldwater’s shocking opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would finally break the Democratic Solid South once and for all; it was a bigger and more empirically grounded version of the occasional excitement over Trump’s potential appeal to white working-class people (who already vote heavily Republican). But a lot of Republicans walked away from the Goldwater-Miller ticket, some as a matter of conviction but more out of a prudential disdain for lost causes. And even before LBJ’s landslide, there was talk about GOP pols positioning themselves to inherit the wreckage. We could soon be seeing the same phenomenon in 2016.
One of the things you do when you are positioning yourself for a future presidential run is to pose as a party loyalist and then volunteer for down-ballot drudge work. That’s how Richard Nixon rehabilitated himself in 1964, and why he had an enormous advantage over Nelson Rockefeller — who attacked Goldwater supporters at the convention and refused to lift a finger for the ticket in the general election — in 1968. When Ronald Reagan jumped into the ‘68 race very late and Nixon was trying to hold the line against the wildly popular Californian among Southern conservatives, his loyalty to Goldwater probably saved the day. That’s the context in which we should understand the decisions by Ted Cruz and John Kasich to fold their tents before it was mathematically necessary this year. Why make permanent enemies of Trump supporters? Both these men are almost certainly thinking about giving it another whirl in 2020, after Trump’s inevitable defeat. Being the party loyalist who nonetheless offers the party a very different future is the safest course of action.
Anyone who actually joins Trump’s ticket or gets too close to the fire of the Donald’s rhetoric, on the other hand, is probably not thinking about 2020. The number of pols who find something else to do when Trump’s circus comes to their town this fall will likely show how few Republicans are jockeying for spots in a Trump Administration and how many are looking beyond November.
And what will their post-Trump arguments be? We can already anticipate some of them.
For Ted Cruz and the movement conservatives he represents, the argument is easy: Republicans lost in 2008 and 2012 and 2016 because they did not make their campaigns a crusade for True Conservatism, and thus it’s now time, finally, to give it a try in 2020.
For John Kasich, the easiest argument will probably be that Republicans need to fix their gazes on general-election polls from the get-go next time around, and make electability their principle litmus test for candidates.
There will be plenty of Republicans arguing for a return to the post-2012 RNC Autopsy Report, and an applications of its lessons — lessons Trump’s nomination implicitly and violently rejected. Whether or not Marco Rubio makes a political comeback in 2018, you can expect his name to be mentioned in conjunction with the easiest route to a GOP recovery among Latinos — unless George P. Bush wins the governorship of Texas in the interim (I’m at least half-joking). Nikki Haley will get some early mentions as a potential party savior, and maybe before long Joni Ernst will be deemed ready for the Big Time.
And then you can expect a second act from the Reformicons, the intellectuals who typically wanted the GOP to do a better job of representing the views and economic interests of its white-working-class base, but for the most part were as horrified as anyone else by how Trump fit that particular bill. They probably need a more forceful champion than Rubio or Jebbie in 2020, with an agenda more evocative than the odd family tax credit.
There will be other would-be shapers of the post-Trump Republican Party as well, whether it’s another White House candidate from the Family Paul, or fresh faces nobody’s thinking about. But the great thing about the impending Trump disaster is that none of the survivors will get blamed and everyone can pretend it was a one-off aberration — a sort of natural disaster — that need not recur. It will help enormously that 2018 — like 1966 — should be a very good year for the GOP. Thanks to fortuitous turnout patterns, midterms are now always elections where Republicans should be better than external circumstances might suggest. The midterm in a third straight Democratic administration should be especially strong for the “out party.” The Senate landscape for 2018 is almost impossibly pro-Republican. And on top of everything else, the more down-ballot damage the party suffers this November, the more likely crazy-large gains will be two years later. Indeed, it will be easy for Republicans to point to 2010, 2014, and 2018 and argue that there’s nothing wrong with the GOP that the right presidential candidate cannot fix.
And without a doubt, that candidate is looking at him- or herself in the mirror each morning.
Yeah, it’s groan-inducing to say this, and not something I want to be true at all. But thanks to the newly minted 2016 Republican presidential nominee, the 2020 Invisible Primary has already begun.