April 21, 2024

Christie warned against giving in to such thinking; in fact, the entirety of the former U.S. Attorney’s water-testing stump speech is The Case Against Trump. But in the very hour he was delivering that argument, Trump was on the opposite end of the Eastern Seaboard demonstrating how well-positioned he is at the moment.

Summoning the House members from Florida who’ve endorsed his candidacy to dinner at Mar-a-Lago, a troll of Ron DeSantis bearded as a toast to Trump, the former president used the dinner to deliberate over how much he should even compete in the Republican primary.

Going around the table, as he’s wont to do, Trump surveyed the lawmakers about whether they thought he should show up for the first GOP primary debate and lend legitimacy to there being a serious contest for the nomination, an attendee told me. Some of the Republicans wondered out loud about the wisdom of exposing himself to attacks from lesser candidates when he’s so far up in the polls. But there was more support (including among Trump’s advisers in the room) for attending the initial debate, in part because he’d be a punching bag if he skipped it, so why not be there to punch back.

Before going any further, let’s stipulate that presidential nominations are rarely decided a year before the balloting. And, if I may, there’s been an overcorrection to the post-midterm conventional wisdom that Trump is doomed (the conventions of political speculation, sadly, don’t allow much space between sure thing and roadkill).

Ok, to-be-sure out of the way, onto where the Republican race stands. It will ring quite familiar to anybody who paid attention to the last two Democratic primaries.

2024 could look a lot like 2020. That was when we in the political press corps dumped oceans of ink on the ideological differences among the candidates, questions about their specific policy proposals (will Elizabeth Warren release her own healthcare plan, inquiring minds didn’t want to know) only to cover a race that effectively turned on a single question: Who can win the general election? Democrats were effectively single-issue voters and their bet on President Joe Biden paid off in November.

Four years earlier, in 2016, there was a deeply flawed frontrunner, a proven presidential loser and polarizing figure among the general electorate, who many smart Democrats had misgivings about nominating. But she lined up early endorsements eager to be on the right side of the nominee, much of the party was cowed and she, eventually, did turn out to be inevitable.

Are today’s Republicans poised to nominate Donald J. Rodham?

Yes, there are glaring differences between 2016 and 2024, but what alarms so many Republicans (and encourages the fatalism) is another similarity that’s less obvious. Just as progressives privately worried that Hillary Clinton and her party’s moderates would never truly embrace Bernie Sanders if he prevailed, many pessimistic Republicans wonder the same about Trump next year.

It’s preposterous to imagine him, arms held aloft with DeSantis or whoever beats him, at a Unity Breakfast the morning after the nomination is decided. At best, Trump will be an irritant to who defeats him.

So why not, as Christie alluded to last week, stop fighting political gravity, submit to Trump and then, if he again loses, begin the Republican reformation in 2025. After all, it took Democrats three consecutive losses in the 1980s for the Democratic Leadership Council to finally gain traction and elevate one of their own in 1992.

Republicans would only have to suffer two White House defeats to finally move on from Trump and, in the meantime, there’s that Supreme Court majority he helped deliver as the political backstop.

As a shrewd Republican strategist, and no NeverTrumper, put it to me recently: “We’re just going to have to go into the basement, ride out the tornado and come back up when it’s over to rebuild the neighborhood.”

This Republican, as with a number of his like, has been hoping for a strong Trump alternative to emerge but has grown more pessimistic, DeSantis’ early stumbles confirming his doubts about the Florida governor. Moreover, there’s the matter of Roe being overturned and the political vise the party is caught in between its unyielding anti-abortion activists and a broader electorate that supports legal abortion. “We’re the dog that caught the car on Trump and abortion.”

So, yes, there are some doubts in GOP ranks about 2024. And not just from the self-hating type.

Yet there’s another class of Republicans who look at President Biden’s dismal standing and reject the moping and detest the fatalism about Trump on top of the ticket. They say all that’s needed to put a Republican in the White House is to nominate someone other than Trump.

Some of these Republicans even have a name: They’re called those who will be on the ballot in swing districts next year.

One of the most promising freshmen GOP lawmakers, 36-year-old Mike Lawler from upstate New York, is all but begging Republican primary voters not to saddle him with Trump, using all the right code words.

“Whoever the nominee is going to be needs to be forward-looking and they need to be focused on the American people, not the grievances of the past, and it certainly can’t be about the 2020 election,” Lawler told me.

I think I know who he means.

But the challenge Lawler has is that Trump as the nominee can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when the congressman’s colleagues are lining up to take their turn at Mar-a-Lago, wanting to be with the winner (and maybe secure that coveted cabinet gig or endorsement for a future primary).

No, individual endorsements don’t matter much these days. But the collective validation of Trump by party lawmakers can create a snowball-down-the-mountain effect.

Lawler is all too aware of this risk — and the threat it poses to him and a House majority that depends on California and New York, states Trump would lose badly. But he won’t name names. “Who’s to say I haven’t had that conversation?” he asked back at me when I wondered if he had carped to any of his colleagues about their early endorsements.

He did, though, allow that most Republicans are in seats where they’re “more worried about their primary than the general election.” And he noted that lawmakers like him, running in districts Biden carried, will be “the difference between us having the majority or not.”

The same can be applied to the Senate, at least in the purple-to-blue states Republicans are targeting. Trump is no anchor in the reddest races — Montana, West Virginia and Ohio — but if those don’t fall then Senate Republicans will need states where the former president is anathema to the pivotal suburbanites who decide elections. And if Trump appears destined to lead the ticket, well, let’s just say that some of the potential candidates in these more competitive states aren’t as enthused about running,

“It makes it harder to get in,” one potential Senate GOP recruit told me about how Trump’s inevitability shapes calculations, grumbling about the lawmakers racing to the former president’s side.

There is another Republican eyeing a 2024 race, however, who isn’t resigned to a Trump threepeat.

“I think that the majority of the party doesn’t want him,” Christie told me the morning after his appearance at New England College in Henniker.

Christie will decide whether to run in May, he said, indicating it will largely depend on whether he thinks he can raise the money.

Christie rejects the idea that there’s only two options, nominate Trump or see the nominee undermined by Trump, arguing that if the former president loses “he’ll be a diminished figure” and “a two-time loser” rather than a MAGA kingpin.

He said sure nominating Trump is “a guaranteed pathway to lose,” but when I asked if, to borrow a phrase, Republicans had gotten tired of losing yet, he acknowledged it was a good question: “I think we’re going to find out.”

But when I pressed Christie on whether, were he not to run, he’d work to rally support for an alternative, he didn’t sound particularly enthusiastic or optimistic. “I’m sure I’ll try, yeah, don’t know I’ll find one,” he said. (No, he said, he’s not going to back Trump again, either in the primary or general election.)

Like a lot of prominent Republicans, Christie has no relationship with DeSantis and harbors evident skepticism about somebody who has led a “very sheltered existence down there in Florida,” as the former governor put it.

Among the voters I spoke to in New Hampshire, there’s more openness to DeSantis. But already it’s easy to see the bright lines coming into view: The Republicans wanted to hear out DeSantis, but the independents who can vote in (and often shape) New Hampshire primaries were as dead set against DeSantis as they are Trump.

And if those two anti-Trump constituencies, the time-to-move-on Republicans and the pivotal independents, aren’t aligned, well, we’ve seen that movie before. It was called 2016, and not only did Trump win the New Hampshire primary but it was former Ohio Governor John Kasich who came in second, because he won so many independents and the other, more conservative Republicans split the remaining vote (nearly 50 percent!).

Christie’s theory is that by confronting Trump directly he can coalesce the two groups — he took care to note in his stump speech that he’s “not some Never Trumper” — and there’s plenty of voters here who are focused on electability, a la Democrats in 2020.

“I’d like us to get somebody that could win,” Grace Solinsky, a Bedford, N.H., resident, told me at a Christie house party in Bow, N.H., lamenting the “baggage” Trump bears.

That’s the good news for Christie. The bad news is that those most curious about his candidacy are those who aren’t Republicans, or who, like him, at least say they won’t vote for Trump in a general election.

More to the point, the biggest group that showed up for his town hall were a group of male undergraduates who took off for the exits the second the event ended like their seats were on fire. When I took off after them to record their impressions, one got straight to the point. They were members of the college baseball team and, by attending Christie’s town hall, had gotten out of running at practice.

Meanwhile, Trump may be headed to a showdown over the debates that will reveal how much power he holds over his adopted party.

He’s angry, people close to him tell me, that the Republican National Committee is insistent upon holding the first debate, sponsored by Fox News, in Milwaukee during the dead of summer simply because that coincides with the party’s summer meeting there. Not only is it too early, Trump has told people, but he has questions post-Tucker Carlson defenestration about how friendly Fox may be to him and wonders whether his lead is so significant that there’s no reason to give their news side anchors the draw they crave.

Trump’s view of the debates, and the GOP broadly, evokes what one of his predecessors once told a young corporal who was directing him to “his helicopter.”

“Son,” LBJ replied, “they’re all my helicopters.”